The Studio Museum Has a Vision for Its Home. And a Power Player at the Helm.

 
September 27, 2017
It was evening in Harlem.

At 144 West 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, people fiercely embraced one another in greeting. Bartenders poured wine as a D.J. spun tunes and a machine spouted popcorn.

This wasn't a block party or a family reunion. It was the recent opening of an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the city's premier showcase for African-American art. And at the center of the swirl — combining the forces of anchor, magnet, den mother, big sister and art world celebrity — was the museum's director and formidable steward, Thelma Golden.

The infectious, informal atmosphere is what Ms. Golden hopes to capture in the museum's new building by the architect David Adjaye, whose design is to be unveiled on Tuesday and is the impetus for a $175 million capital campaign.

As the Studio Museum prepares to break ground here next year, coinciding with its 50th anniversary, Ms. Golden, 52, is overseeing the institution at a turning point in its history.

The museum will finally have its first purpose-built space on the site of its current cramped home in a former bank building. Despite persistent doubts about the financial capacities of predominantly black boards, the Studio Museum has succeeded in raising 70 percent of the money for its building project, cementing the institution's stature as a model of how to develop racially diverse trustees, staff members and audiences. Ms. Golden's name, meanwhile, keeps coming up for top posts, like those at the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the same time, Ms. Golden must defend the Studio Museum's importance in an age when the work of African-American artists is increasingly making its way into mainstream institutions. She must find new ways to attract visitors when even major institutions on Manhattan's Museum Mile are struggling to compete with digital media for patrons' leisure time. And she needs to raise the rest of the money for a new building when many institutions are also trying to secure donations.

"She's now considered a superstar in the art world," said Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who last year brought Ms. Golden onto his board. "Some people have said, ‘Mission accomplished; why do you need a big building?'" he added. "Well, why does MoMA need a new building, why does the Whitney need a new building? Somehow the Studio Museum is supposed to stay in an unkempt, un-air-conditioned building. Why shouldn't they have the same institutional ambition?"

The Studio Museum's dual identities — as local community hub and an international champion of African-American artists and curators — are evident at its overflow openings, like the one for this month's emerging artists show "Fictions," where the gallery owner Gavin Brown and the artist Marilyn Minter rubbed elbows with Jonelle Procope, the president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater, and Dr. Edgar Mandeville, an esteemed obstetrician at Harlem Hospital.

About $125 million has been secured toward Studio Museum's $175 million goal (which includes reserve and endowment), including a substantial $53.8 million contribution from the city, with another $9 million commitment anticipated over the next two years.

Ms. Golden has raised the museum's international profile by popping up all over the world — leading trustees on art trips to Los Angeles or London; at the Venice Biennale to celebrate the artist Mark Bradford; in the pages of Vogue, in those unmistakable colorful dresses designed by her husband, the London-based Duro Olowu; and on the board of the Obama Foundation, where she is helping to plan the presidential library.

"What she has done is to simultaneously foreground the Harlem-ness in Studio Museum but also enabled it to become a national institution," said Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Still Ms. Golden's connection to Harlem, where she also lives, is visibly strong; she can regularly be seen chatting with street vendors; eating branzino with her board chairman, the financier Raymond J. McGuire, at Vinatería; and convening the heads of the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Red Rooster to welcome a new cultural leader to the neighborhood.

"The community is a part of that museum," the artist Julie Mehretu said. "You feel that."

Despite Met speculation, Ms. Golden said she is focused on her building project, which will increase the Studio Museum's space for its exhibitions and artist in residence program by 115 percent, invite visitors through a new glass entrance and hold events on its roof terrace.

"Right now, there is very little about what it means to be the director of the Studio Museum that I would trade," Ms. Golden said. "It feels like this is what I am supposed to be doing."

Moreover, she must help the museum stay vital while itinerant — closing in January 2018 and planning to reopen in 2021 — during which it will pursue projects in various spaces.

Ms. Golden is known for a zealous development of artists, many of whom have become world renowned, including Kehinde Wiley, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Glenn Ligon, with whom Ms. Golden talks every day.

"She immediately gives them a platform," Mr. Bradford said. "She doesn't just say, ‘they're great' at a cocktail party. She goes to work."

This enthusiasm for art animated Ms. Golden early on. "Art was my favorite thing," she said, recalling how she devoured the hefty textbook "Janson's History of Art." "It just gave me a sense of the world."

While still a high school student at New Lincoln, Ms. Golden — who grew up in St. Albans, Queens — worked as an intern at the Met, stopping regularly at the Whitney Museum of American Art. "I loved being in spaces with artwork," she said.

As a sophomore at Smith College, she was an intern at the Studio Museum, and, after graduation, a curatorial fellow there. She then went to the Whitney, where she worked on the 1993 Biennial and curated the exhibition "Black Male" (1994), which provoked considerable debate with its images of masculinity.

"So many of the shows she did were not just great shows but reframed art history," said Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney's current director. "Thelma was instrumental in making possible the whole rethinking of not just African-American art but American art."

While Ms. Golden could have publicly chided her institutional colleagues over the years for being slow to diversify their ranks and collections, she instead has led by example.

"I'm sure she must have personal moments of frustration, but she always takes the high road," said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, adding that Ms. Golden "revolutionized my whole idea of what a cultural institution could do."

Ms. Golden said she readily accepts her role as a symbol of change. "I take seriously the responsibility to represent what it means to believe in the power and the possibility of diversity and inclusion in our cultural world," she said. "I see it as a privilege to be able to represent what that means. And I don't take it lightly at all."

The New York Times
Story By Robin Pogrebin