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|Golden Time at the Studio Museum
by Joyce Corrigan
|Don't expect to see new Studio Museum in Harlem curator Thelma Golden among the crowds waiting in line to buy performance fleece at the new Old Navy store at 125th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For one thing, the diminutive art-world fashion plate's style is strictly designer -- Vivienne Tam to Mary Boone's Chanel. For another, Golden's not the type to join all those jammin' about the New Harlem, which will also witness, in the next few months, a Disney Store, a nine-screen Magic Johnson Theatre multiplex and an HMV store -- where people can carry in their coffees from the brand new Starbucks.
"It's a lot of hype," says Golden, who only recently took her new post as deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum (SMH). "There's always been creativity and energy up here," she asserts. "It's been going on for more than 80 years." Golden might as well be wearing an "I Survived Black History Month" T-shirt. Tokenism-like philistinism is a thorn in her side. "Let's get over finding four weeks a year to celebrate African-American contribution to culture. Up here it's Black History Month every day."
As a black woman curator in an overwhelming white male art world, Golden has long fostered art that burns with racial and gender issues. People are still talking about "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art," the show she organized in 1994 at the Whitney Museum, where she was an associate curator. At the time, she took a lot of heat, and clearly she's still defensive about it. "I made a conscious decision not to engage with any of the criticism," she says. "No less than 100 articles appeared the first week. How could I answer any of them? It took on a life of its own."
Most of the reaction was scathing, and came from conservative writers like Hilton Kramer as well as from progressive reviewers and several African-American artists, who objected to what they considered the provocative reinforcement of racial stereotypes. Golden still wouldn't discuss the show when asked twice about the "offending" artworks.
She also declines to talk about her abrupt departure from the Whitney last year after Maxwell Anderson was appointed director of the museum. Instead she offers a litany of praise both for his predecessor David Ross, who now heads up the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and for Peter Norton, the contemporary art collector and philanthropist for whom she worked, post-Whitney, as special projects curator. "Peter gave me a perch for a while; I didn't plan to leave the Whitney. Working for a private collector was very freeing. They never have to be careful or commercial-minded. And Peter is an extraordinary supporter of the arts. Still, I felt like an outsider in the art world. If you're with a museum or gallery, you're really on a team. And, for better or worse, I missed that."
When asked about Norton's recent downsizing of his vast collection -- he donated scores of works to a range of museums -- and if the SMH had benefited, Golden said no. Still there is speculation that the California-based collector, who resigned from the Whitney board when Golden left, may become involved with the Harlem museum in the future.
At SMH, Golden perhaps has found an ideal fit working under Lowery Stokes Sims, the newly appointed director. Sims comes directly from the Metropolitan Museum, where she was curator of modern art since 1986. "We're both really coming home," says Golden, who'd interned at SMH while an art history major at Smith College. Sims has been both lecturer and guest curator there. "We've always known of each other. And I think we complement each other. She's definitely open to the challenge of redefining this museum. And ready to innovate."
Whether or not Harlem, revved by the commercial boom, is on the verge of another Renaissance, clearly the Studio Museum is. The Museum's ambitious renovation plans -- to be completed by 2002 -- include a new glass façade and lobby, a revamped sculpture court, a 100-seat auditorium, a café and a new 2,500 square feet of additional gallery space. Rising to the occasion, the museum has also launched an initiative to add 200 important works to the permanent collection. "There'll be a better website and much more film and video," adds Golden. "The formal lobby will make a big difference, really inviting people in from the street. We want people to congregate here."
Golden's own mandate is to reappraise the museum's original mission. "We're not about nostalgia. We're not looking back. Does that mean we'll never do an historical show? Of course not -- when it's relevant." Making a point not to name specific artists, Golden simply says that under her, the museum will show more 21st century than 19th century, and more African-American than strictly African. "We're about African-American art and the African diaspora. We'll look at living artists of African descent, wherever they're living. Would we show a Chris Ofili? Of course, if I thought it were good."
"The museum has always been limited financially; but more than makes up for it in energy and commitment. It's a very happy place to work. And because it's so small, it can be nimble and flexible, but also influential. Mary Campbell, one of the founders, literally educated the art critics of New York City. She made them really look at African-American art."
Golden hasn't much to do with the SMH's slate of shows for spring, summer and fall of this year -- "Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe" (which the Museum will share with the Museum for African Art in SoHo) and "Collection in Context," which celebrates the permanent collection over the last 30 years. "I've inherited them. So I'm not nervous at all about them at all." Asked about the theme of her debut show in 2002, she says she has no idea. She's not there yet.
"Curating is an active verb," says Golden. "David Ross always believed the curator was a conduit for the artist's voice -- the artist's collaborator. So for me, the most important thing for a curator is a clear vision. I can't operate outside of it. I can never compromise it."
Golden was originally scheduled to organize this year's Whitney Biennial, so she's storing up a lot of untapped curatorial energy. Her first show, when it comes, could be a tornado of controversy -- or it might not be. But as the young curator is looking to stir up new passion for, and membership in, the Studio Museum, it probably won't be a quiet, unassuming show. Count on one thing: "There must always be an element of surprise."
JOYCE CORRIGAN writes on art and culture.