Thelma GoldenThelma Golden always knew she was going to be a curator. A born and bred New Yorker, Golden is the Chief Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Gothamist spoke with her while she was prepping for her latest show, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, which opens today.

Age: 39
Profession: Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem
Online guilty pleasure: astrology

A exhibit you organized of British artist Chris Ofili’s work opens today at the Studio Museum. Can you tell us about this show?
The mission of the museum was re-thought a few years ago to expand from what we had traditionally been founded to do, which was to present and select African-American artists, to now collect and present artists of African descent. What that did essentially is create for us the ability to work internationally.

This exhibition is probably the sixth or seventh that we have done with an artist who is not from the US. In this particular case, I began to think about doing an exhibit of Chris' work when I worked with him on his Venice Biennial presentation. In the course of thinking about those works and their relationships to other works he had made, I was very intrigued by his watercolors. I had seen many of them, but didn’t realize they consumed such a large part of his practice. That is, that he made many many of them, but they had never been considered on their own. So at the time, we began to talk about what that possibility might be, and have been working and thinking about it ever since.

Ofili has a reputation of being a humorist, a social critic. Does this come across in his watercolors?
No, that’s seen in his other work.

The watercolors are of people, men and women, and some are of birds and flowers. They are not portraits. They are done from memory or from photographs. They are a romantic, even sentimental idea of picturing black beauty. They also look to the medium of watercolor and what its challenges are - it has to be done quickly, that it in and of itself it is a very liquid and porous medium. So unlike Chris’ paintings that are layers upon layers and have a real density to the way they are created, the watercolors allow for an immediacy of practice. At heart that is what they are about, a combination of both head and hand together working through these ideas.

Is this a site-specific show?
More appropriately, it’s site-sensitive. Every exhibition I make at the Studio Museum is site-sensitive. It is very hard to work here in the middle of 125th St, with all the attention being paid to Harlem these days and not to imagine this part of the city as part of the life of the museum, publicly as well as aesthetically. I think of not just the audience that we have, but I think about the way in which this museum symbolizes so many things. That never happened to me when I worked at the Whitney. I saw the site as an independent one, one that was universal in a way, in that many things could happen on those walls but they never necessarily had a relationship to what was going on outside. Whereas here, I always think that the line between outside and inside is very very thin. I think about it constantly.

What about the building itself, how does that come into play?
The museum is a former bank building, which had been a furniture store in a low point in its history and then retrofitted by the architect Max Bond into the museum. It’s not a pure gallery space. Every exhibition has to be thought through in relationship to the actual physical space. I have very few walls that are the same height. I have very few pure square rooms. It’s not like the kind of place where you can walk in someone’s studio and say bring all the paintings and we’ll figure out how we are gonna hang them when we get there. Everything has to be considered, because the space is so quirky. But as a curator, I think I have learned to value that quirkiness, because it does add a layer to the curatorial process.

So, how does the Ofili show work in the space?
This exhibition is a large group, 181 watercolors in a space that is very high with these broad walls. We envisioned it feeling like a crowd of people, that these watercolors would be placed around the room to create this sense of density. So the number of works we are showing and the way in which we are installing them was with the space in mind.

A traveling exhibition, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse also opens at the museum today. Is there a curatorial vision underlying why these shows are running concurrently?
The shows being up at the same time is a scheduling coincidence that in retrospect can be seen as brilliant, but is really not planned.

It terms of the timing, I always think about the relationship or the dialogue between shows. Once it was clear the shows would happen together, I thought there were many different interesting relationships. Traylor and Edmondson are both considered folk artists, a term I am not so comfortable with, but one in use wildly in the art world to speak about untrained artists or outsider artists working outside an art establishment. Chris is considered and thought about in ways that are opposite of that. But when you take away all the names and the time and the place, there is a very definitive sense of relationship, specifically between the Traylor work and the Ofili work, in the way that they both come up with unique ways of depicting their subjects, their own kind of iconography. Also there are commonalities in scale in all three cases. These are relatively small-scale works, relatively intimate works, and there is a relationship that moves through them though they are separated by almost a century in terms of their making.

How did you come to curating?
Basically I grew up here in New York going to museums. I went to high school on the Upper East Side and spent a fair bit of time at the Whitney Museum. I also had opportunity in high school to work at the Metropolitan Museum. The combination made me know that when I got to college that obviously I wanted to major in art history, and perhaps more specifically, I wanted to work in a museum when I got out of college. So I don’t think I would have named it by then, but sort of. I knew I had a general idea that I wanted to work in a museum and organize the exhibitions.

And your interest in contemporary art?
It was during my college years that I became interested in living artists and contemporary art. That really shaped how I moved into several of the jobs I’ve had, which began with an internship here at the Studio Museum immediately following college and then a job as a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum and then a short period working at an alternative space out in Queens called the Jamaica Arts Center and then back to the Whitney as a curator and then here.

What do you think it is about your personality that makes you a good curator?
I am a complete total virgo control freak that’s incredibly obsessive and detail-oriented. I will worry every detail to death. At the same time, that obsession makes it possible for me to go from an idea, like a tiny germ of an idea, into a full blown exhibition, because I can’t let it go. So I might think, gosh, why am I so bothered by hyper, figurative realistic images of black people. It will be something I think about and not let go of. It will stay with me until it realizes and in many cases those realizations are exhibitions.

A bulk of your career was spent at the Whitney. What shows did you work on there?
I was a co-curator for the '93 Biennial. I made an exhibition called Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. I organized several collection shows and a retrospective of the ‘60’s era painter, Bob Johnson. I was also responsible for the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris, which is now called the Whitney Museum at Altria. I did a program of site-specific installations by contemporary artists there, people like Suzanne McClelland, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon and Garry Simmons. In my time, I must have done about twenty of them.

Care to compare and contrast the Whitney and The Studio Museum?
I think on paper the differences between the museums seems perhaps striking, big/small, rich/not-so rich, but actually the museums are relatively the same. They were both founded as a response to a real and perceived level of exclusion in the art world. In the case of the Whitney at its founding it was the sense that American art wasn’t valued or seen as important. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney started the museum to support and present American artists. The Studio Museum in Harlem started to present and support African-American artists.

Both museums are not generalist museums. As a curator, I have always worked in museums where there is a specific focus that you are working from and while you are a curator of a particular thing, the institution also has a focus of a sort.

In other ways, the differences come down to things that are more personal. Architecturally, the Whitney is the epitome in some ways of a modernist white box space. For a long time I fantasized about that space and imagined every exhibition I made needed that kind of space to make sense. I have since learned to work outside and around that, but that is a difference - “pure museum space” as opposed to this kind of space.

On the other hand, the Whitney is a smaller big museum and its size and scale doesn’t create an intimacy for the audience, an intimacy even in terms of dealing with a certain kind of immediacy. What I love about a small-scale institution like the Studio Museum is that it can be very nimble and there is a great way in which immediacy can play in that environment.

What do you think are some of the issues facing the museum community today?
The biggest issue is understanding who our audience is and what they want from museums. Museums perhaps are at a point where they have to begin to understand themselves differently.

Practical question, when you are working on a show, what comes first? Is it the idea? The money? The artist?
In terms of my curatorial process, it’s usually the artist and the artist prompts the idea. The idea is then what the show begins from, and then all the rest of it, the money, the funding, the sponsorship all of that comes after. There are some curators who work first from the idea and then they go look for the art. There is no right way, I think it’s more about the way we all define are processes.

Okay, what about the the broader cultural ramifications of your work? Do you think about that during the planning stages?
No I don’t, because when you are working on a show you are doing it by yourself, primarily. You don’t necessarily have the advantage of all of those factors, which are probably all there and very real, but not necessarily as present as they are when the show moves out into the world.

Curious where you weigh in the curator versus critic debate. In a recent article in The Art Newspaper, Power Ekroth was quote as saying, “the role of the critic has been gradually taken over by the curator.” Do you agree?
At any moment, different people are important in different ways. Perhaps critics aren’t as important as they were at another point in this century, when they were the ones who defined what new art we saw. But, the art world has changed. Museums and collectors are much more engaged in new work and contemporary artists.

I know it’s one of those things that can be seen as fighting words. Who is more powerful, is it the critics or the curators. I think we all have our roles. I would say that the group that needs to be looked at in terms of their presence is collectors. I feel more than anything that collectors have such a transformed kind of a role in the contemporary art world. They now directly operate with artists as people who not just buy work, but commission work. And, many collectors are building homes or spaces to show their collections.

You sometimes talk about black art and post-black art. What do these terms mean to you?
When I got to the Studio Museum I realized that the sort of terminology that had been used to describe art made by artists of African descent was highly problematic to everyone. 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. On one level, I thought there was a way to cut through some of the theory and move back to a naming that was somewhat literal, not descriptive, by using the term black art and taking it away from some of its negative connotations. I wanted to just use it very simply as a way to talk about what was a more complicated realm, art made by artists of African descent all over the world, who name and call themselves many different things.

Then when I began to think about doing a show of young artists, 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. They discarded it or embraced it or really felt without question that they had a certain level of agency, just even in how they operated in their studio. I don’t even mean this was something they were doing politically or standing out in the world doing. It was the way they understood themselves in the studio. 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.

Going back to Harlem for a moment, what do you think of the changes taking place there?
This is a city that is always transforming and Harlem is no different. Some of the changes happening in Harlem are amazing. Making it a community is great, but some of the changes are not great for everyone. Gentrification is always a problem, and I think sometimes it’s seen along racial lines, certainly in Harlem that can come into high relief. But it’s also a class issue that’s playing out and a real estate issue. That’s where the most interesting thinking about Harlem is taking place. How you negotiate that. What happens in a community when it becomes desirable to too many people. What happens to the people who’ve been there all along. To the outside world it all seems so great, but does it benefit the people who have been there forever? That’s the question.

Some people might look to you as a spokesperson for the black community. Do you feel comfortable with that?
I am not a spokesperson for the black community, I am a spokesperson for me and the ideas that I might be interested in. And while sometimes those ideas might line up with other people’s ideas and perhaps I can speak for a collective sense of thinking, I by no means stand as the spokesperson for what every black person thinks about contemporary art or contemporary ideas or anything people might imagine I do. The reason why that is, I understand as much as I hate it, is that my shows exist in public institutions, and they stand for some people as being much more symbolic around a larger level of thought. It is not a role, even if someone offered it to me, I would take. I wouldn’t want it at all.

Last year you did a show at the Brooklyn Museum of fashion designer Patrick Kelly
I knew of Patrick’s work as a teenager and in college, from ’86-’90, not just from his fashion in fashion magazines, but because he was such a seminal figure. He was an African-American designer who achieved a fame that hadn’t been achieved in the fashion world. He was the first American designer to show in the Chambre Syndicale, which is a major achievement for any designer. And because he used the signs and symbols of black culture in his work, he was a very controversial character. He was extremely irreverent and in many ways I saw him as a huge precedent for many of the artists that I have been interested in as a curator.

While you have an interest in fashion, you hadn’t done any exhibits like this before. How did you come to curate the show?
It came to me because I had offered help to Bjorn Amelan who was Patrick Kelly’s partner in business and in life. He wanted to do something with this incredible archive he had, not just of garments, but of drawings and patterns and fabric swatches and invitations from the shows and all sorts of things from the showroom, the hangers, the shopping bags, the labels. In thinking about it, it seemed to me an obvious show, but I’m not a fashion or costume curator. After what seemed like a couple of attempts at trying to get someone else to think “well oh, isn’t this a great exhibition, I’ll curate it,” I ended up saying I would do it.

I was really lucky to work with Bjorn. He was an incredible resource and in many ways a curator himself. The way he approached even what was kept of Patrick’s legacy was very astute and knowing in terms of what would be important to know about Patrick and how these objects could convey it. I also felt like my own interest in fashion was such that it really was more fun say than work. With art it’s work, I see the fun in it obviously, but in this case, I definitely felt like I was working on a very different kind of project.

What’s your next project?
We are working on an exhibition that will open in the fall called Frequency. It will include many young artists that I’m interested in.

If you weren’t a curator, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d work for Oprah.

photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders