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Thelma Golden Biography

Fascinated by Museums as a Child, Earned National Reputation, Sparked Controversy



Thelma Golden has become a driving force in the art world. Since disrupting the status quo with her 1994 exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Golden has continued to create challenging dialogues around art and artists, making her one of the most respected curators in America. After ten years at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the nation's premier art institutions, Golden took up a new challenge in 2000, joining the Studio Museum in Harlem and becoming executive director and chief curator in 2005.

Fascinated by Museums as a Child

Thelma Golden knew she wanted to be a museum curator since late childhood and early adolescence. Born in 1965, she grew up in Queens, New York. As a child Golden first developed a love for art by studying reproductions of works from the Art Institute of Chicago's permanent collection. Golden found the prints on the playing cards for the board game, Masterpiece—despite her lack of interest in the game itself. She also became fascinated in museums themselves. "I think I, in going to museums as a young child, really realized that someone did that—I didn't have a name for it, but it was clear that somebody put those things up, somewhere," she recalled for Diane Haithman of the Los Angeles Times. "As soon as it became clear to me what that job was, that was the job I wanted." Indeed, Golden discovered the role of a curator when she was 12. She read about the pioneering African-American woman curator, Lowery Sims, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Golden found her inspiration.

Golden's career began early and developed quickly. By her senior year in high school, Golden had begun training as a curatorial apprentice at the Metropolitan Museum. Soon she would attend Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts, where in 1987 she graduated with a degree in art history. One year as a curatorial intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem followed, and another as an assistant at the Whitney. Until 1991, Golden gained experience as visual arts director at the Jamaica Arts Center in New York, where she curated eight shows. After taking a position at the Whitney in 1991, Golden began to rise to national prominence in the art world.

Earned National Reputation

As the Whitney's branch director at Philip Morris from 1991 to 1993, Golden opened up the museum to previously under-represented artists—women, people of color—and gained a national reputation. At the Philip Morris branch Golden exhibited a number of artists, including Glenn Ligon, Suzanne McClelland, Gary Simmons, Y. David Chung, Alison Saar, and Judith Shea. Also, Golden explored more physical aspects of organizing an exhibition, as when she organized a showing of drape paintings, Golden Element Inside Gold, by Sam Gilliam in the Sculpture Court. Gilliam's works were among those representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and have been part of the permanent collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, Golden stepped out of New York City to spread her artistic message. In 1993 at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, for example, she delivered a lecture and slide presentation entitled "African-American Art: Myth and Reality" in which she examined social protest and black life and culture in twentieth-century art by African Americans. The Columbus Call and Post advertised that her address would bring "new insights" to viewers of a concurrent exhibition of the works of a Columbus African American artist, Roman Johnson.

Golden affected her main impact in the U.S. art world during the 1990s through the Whitney, however. After a promotion in 1992 to associate curator, in 1993 Golden contributed to the design of a major event in the U.S. art world, the Whitney Biennial, a tradition which dates back to the Whitney's founding by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney when the philanthropist hoped to introduce the work of emerging U.S. artists into an art world dominated by European modernists. On a team led by the curator Elisabeth Sussman, Golden was one of four curators of the 1993 exhibition.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial combined video, performance art, photography, documentary material, text, objects, artifacts, and painting to challenge the viewer on controversial social issues. An investigation of race, gender, sexuality, AIDS, and gay rights, the show included direct social and political statements. "If, as it would seem, the purpose of this Biennial was to take the pulse of America, its vision is of a nation mired in racial, ethnic and sexual conflict, still reeling from the L.A. riots and the Clarence Thomas hearings and deeply ambivalent about 'difference' at the same time that the fact of social diversity becomes ever more inescapable," commented Eleanor Heartney, art critic, in Art in America. Reversing past practice at the Whitney, the vast majority of the 87 artists participating in the 1993 Biennial were women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and gays.

The Biennial's aggressive social and artistic tack elicited substantial debate. Newsweek's art critic, Peter Plagens, derided the 1993 Biennial as "more a dyspeptically sad show than a radically feisty one. It's a melange of social complaints that sometimes takes on the tone of the New York Post edited by the Guerrilla Girls," a group of feminist art activists who protested the 1987 Biennial for racial and sexual exclusion. Quoted in Ms., the Guerrilla Girls praised the 1993 Biennial: "It's a show everyone likes to hate because it's a comment on our times…. [It] seems like this show is polarizing the aesthetes from people who see art as an expression of a certain time and a certain place." As one of four curators designing the prestigious Biennial, Golden played a central role in placing the Whitney at the center of this debate in 1993.

Sparked Controversy

Consistent with the bold approach at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1990s, Golden sparked national controversy in 1994 and 1995 with an exhibition she curated herself, entitled Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Works by 29 artists chosen by Golden to illustrate current conceptions of black masculinity spread across the second and third floors of the Whitney. The artists were black men, such as Gary Simmons, Glenn Ligon, and Lyle Ashton Harris; black women, such as Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Renee Cox; and a few Asian, Hispanic, and white artists to provide a multitude of perspectives. The exhibition also incorporated film, video, and media and was accompanied by an extensive catalogue.

At a Glance …

Born 1965; raised in Queens, NY. Education: Smith College, BA, art history, 1987.

Career: Curatorial apprentice, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, 1983; curatorial intern, Studio Museum, Harlem, NY, c. 1987; curatorial assistant, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, c. 1988; visual arts director, Jamaica Arts Center, Queens, NY, c. 1989–91; branch director, Philip Morris branch, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 1991–93; associate curator director of branch museums, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993–96; curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996–99; special projects curator, Peter Norton Family Foundation, 1998–99; deputy director for exhibitions and programs and chief curator, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2000–05; executive director and chief curator, Studio Museum, 2005–.

Memberships: Institute of International Visual Arts, board member;

Addresses: Office—Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, New York, New York 10027.

Greg Tate of Vibe outlined the poles of the subsequent debate, including the anger at negative images by some in the African American community, and the disdain for black and political art by some conservative white critics. In a review in the New York Amsterdam News, Mel Tapley could provide only mitigated praise. "Except for the size of several of the canvases and photographs, nobody sees the black man as a monumental figure who can conquer, love and rule," she wrote. "Curator Thelma Golden has certainly furnished us with plenty of material for discussion groups throughout the winter. If the 125th Street vendors picketed the storeowners and merchants because the police evicted them, the 100 Black Men might consider demonstrating against art schools and art supply stores for assisting in perpetuating these recorded images."

When Golden heard similar perspectives voiced in the Los Angeles black community when the show toured at UCLA, she responded with the frustration of an artist misunderstood by her audience. "I'm so finished with that, the positive/negative thing? I'm done with that. I can't even go there anymore. I can't even remember what I used to say about that…. Work that is branded homoerotic in content is branded negative, and implicit in that statement is that that is wrong—so therefore the work is negative. You can't even talk about an entry into a certain feminist dialogue, because feminism is wrong!" Exasperated, Golden named some positive images in her exhibition. "The black people are the ones who are doing it, which is what really flips me out—they can't get with the Mapplethorpe because he's gay, but I'm like, these are some of the most beautiful photographs of black men ever taken—who cares?"

To conservative white critics who charged her with overlooking artistic values for black identity politics, Golden answered with a reasoned dismissal. Greg Tate, a young black writer for Vibe who contributed an essay for the exhibition catalog, summarized Golden's response: "Contrary to what some evil-ass critics like Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer have written about Golden, she does love art as much as she does being black, and unlike Kramer doesn't believe the two are mutually exclusive."

Critical response to how successfully each artist and the show itself succeeded in defining beauty and challenging viewers varied. First, Essence writer Veronica Chambers surveyed the scene comprehensively. Calling the show Golden's "largest and boldest exhibit yet," Chambers reported, "Golden … is simultaneously getting kudos and catching hell for her 'adventurous' taste." As if to demonstrate that ambivalence, in a New York Times review on November 11, 1994, critic Michael Kimmelman considered the show less than all the hullabaloo surrounding it. "The exhibition feels digestible: modest, almost," he wrote. Still Kimmelman found some work of value: "Much of it is the predicable inside-the-art-world-Beltway stuff that the Whitney, and countless SoHo galleries, have regularly been offering. Beyond that, there are challenging, sometimes moving works by artists like Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Robert Colescott, Leon Golub, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Barkley Hendricks…." Finally, in a disagreement with art critic Peter Plagens, who called the show "well-intentioned but disappointing," Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose reasoned that, "I'm not so sure it's quite so disappointing as all that. It certainly tries to sit on both sides of the argument. And, given the firestorm around the last Biennial, that is perhaps understandable." Long after the furor in the press subsided, Golden remembered the exhibit in an interview for Bomb magazine as a "significant show that defined who I am as a curator."

Ended a Decade at the Whitney

Thelma Golden continued pressuring for more inclusion of African Americans and people of color into the art world through the 1990s. During her decade at the Whitney, Golden rose to the position of curator and director of branch museums by 1996 and left for other opportunities in 1999. While at the Whitney she hoped to press the public to look beyond stereotypes and to open up the mainstream museum to African-American and other previously under-represented artists and art-lovers. "The art world is still the last bastion of exclusivity," Golden remarked to Veronica Chambers in Essence. In the book American Visions: Afro-American Art—1986, author Carroll Greene Jr. reviewed the acceptance of African American art and artists within U.S. cultural institutions in the mid-1980s. "Indeed, the window of opportunity opened two decades ago may now be closing." Greene warned. "And Afro-American art remains the neglected step-child of American art, receiving only occasional recognition by individual art scholars." Thelma Golden's work at the center of the contemporary U.S. art world in the early 1990s showed the beginnings of the kind of achievement possible. Other exhibitions Golden organized at the Whitney included: Heart, Mind, Body, Soul: New Work from the Collection (1998), Bob Thompson: A Retrospective (1998), and Hindsight: Recent Work from the Permanent Collection (1999).

Three years after being named curator and director of branch museums at the Whitney, Golden decided to seek other opportunities. Working briefly as the special projects curator for the Peter Norton Family Foundation, she accepted a job at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2000. She would be able to work with the woman who had long ago inspired her, Lowery Stokes Sims, the Museum's executive director. As Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs Golden hoped to expand the type of art the Museum exhibited. The Museum had focused mainly on contemporary works by African Americans, but Golden helped to set a new agenda, one that would include the large African diaspora and incorporate references to the multicultural influences on African-American art. Golden emphasized the importance of the new agenda in Essence, saying that "never before had there been so many artists of African and African-American descent bursting onto the scene."

Continued Pioneering Ways at Studio Museum

As Golden began her work at the Studio Museum, she had to mount a hurdle. People were having difficulty with the label "black art." "Similar to woman artists and other artists of color, all this naming had become such a contested place. It had filled a whole decade, the 80's, with conferences and books and articles about what it meant. I felt that because so many artists were investigating this it couldn't be ignored," she explained to the Gothamist. Although she tried to use the label to simply categorize artists and not a style of art, she had trouble finding a good definition for "black art," and began to explore different terms. "Then when I began to think about doing a show of young artists," she added, "I was amazed by the fact that so many of them had incorporated this thinking, not into just the way they theoretically define themselves, but in the way they had an attitude towards it that was somewhat—it seemed to be at the time—very freeing. The artist Glenn Ligon and I began to refer to this stance, this attitude, as post-black art, meaning that these younger artists seemed not oppressed by the strangle-hold of the terminology…. Somewhat ironically, we began referring to it as post-black art, and then it got shortened to post-black. It was a way for me to put a very loose bracket around a way to understand a younger generation." The term stuck and has helped Golden and others expand the way in which they discuss and classify art.

Golden's early work at the Museum with Sims not only helped redefine the art of artists of African descent and doubled museum membership, but also, as Sims told Essence, "reestablished" the Museum "as a magnet for art lovers and emerging artists." The range of works the Museum exhibited were reflected in the shows Golden curated: Isaac Julien: Vagabondia (2000), Martin Puryear: The Cane Project (2000), Glenn Ligon: Stranger (2001), Material and Matter (2001), Freestyle (2001), Red, Black and Green (2001), Yinka Shonibare (2002), Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art (2002), Gary Simmons (2002), Aaron Siskind: Harlem Document (2003), and Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor (2004).

Golden clearly enjoyed her work. In countless interviews, Golden offered a constant stream of new ideas about art and clearly relished creating exhibits. She described her 2002 exhibit of Gary Simmons art in a diary for Slate as "emblematic of what I consider my best work, as it comes from a combination of deep engagement with an artist's practice and a constant desire to be in dialogue." In 2003, Golden rated Freestyle her favorite exhibit in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, saying that "it was my first attempt to look at who's coming up behind the black artists who emerged in the 1990s to put a multicultural stamp on a very complex combination of form and content."

Becoming the executive director of the Studio Museum in 2005 upon the retirement of Sims, Golden had even greater opportunities to leave her mark on the American art world.

Selected writings

Exhibition Catalogs

Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.
(With Gail Gelburd) Romare Bearden in Black-and-White: Photomontage Projections, 1964, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997.
Bob Thompson, Whitney Museum of American Art and University of California Press, 1998.
(With Kellie Jones and Chrissie Iles) Lorna Simpson, Phaidon, 2002.
(With others) Gary Simmons, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2002.
(With others) Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, introduced by Susan Sollins, H.N. Abrams, 2001.



Greene, Carroll, Jr., ed., American Visions: Afro-American Art—1986, The Visions Foundation, 1987.


Artforum, December 2003, p. 126.

Art in America, May 1993, pp. 43-7.

Call and Post (Columbus, OH), November 11, 1993, p. 6A.

Crisis, March-April 2004, p. 43.

Essence, November 1994, p. 64; November 1995, p. 96; May 1997, p. 152; July 2002, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1995, sec. CAL, pp. 5, 84-6.

Ms., May/June 1993, p. 80.

Newsweek, March 15, 1993, p. 72.

New York, January 11, 1993, p. 16.

New York Times, December 12, 1994, sec. C, p. 13; November 14, 2005; p. F32.

New York Voice Inc./Harlem USA, January 19, 1994, p. 17.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 1, 2003.

Vibe, October 1994, p. 34.

Village Voice, February 12, 1991, p. 39.


"Bomb Live! With Betsy Sussler and Thelma Golden," Bomb, http://www.bombsite.com/golden/golden.html (accessed January 6, 2006).

"Diary: By Thelma Golden," Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/2062296/entry/2062304/ (accessed January 6, 2006).

"Thelma Golden, Curator," Gothamist, http://www.gothamist.com/archives/2005/04/27/thelma_golden_curator.php (accessed January 6, 2006).

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