in Frieze | 30 SEP 14

Questionnaire: Thelma Golden

The Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, discusses the art that inspires her and why she'd like to share a celebratory meal with Alma Thomas

in Frieze | 30 SEP 14

What is the remit of the Studio Museum in Harlem?

It is the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally, as well as for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture. It is a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society.

What was the first art gallery you visited?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on a school field trip for Mrs Buck’s fourth grade class.

What art historians have inspired your thinking?

The curator Dorothy Canning Miller worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1934 to 1969. Miller graduated from Smith College, my alma mater, in 1925. I came to know of her work when I was a student helping put together a Smith College Museum of Art exhibition, ‘Dorothy C. Miller: With an Eye to American Art’, which chronicled the groundbreaking contributions of her signature ‘Americans’ exhibitions.

Is there one work of art in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem that you return to time and again?

Norman Lewis’s Bonfire (1962), which is a fabulous example of work by this pioneering Abstract Expressionist painter.

What, if anything, do you feel is missing from the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem?

It is my hope that we can grow the collection to more deeply and widely represent the contemporary work being made on the continent of Africa today.

What is the most mysterious work of art in the Studio Museum in Harlem?

Louise Nevelson’s Homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. (1974–85), which was given to us by the artist in honour of Dr. King’s birthday being made a national holiday, is not mysterious in its form or construction. However — given our position as a museum known for a commitment to artists of African descent — it is the work about which I am most often asked how and why it is in our collection. The piece exemplifies the part of our mission that aims to collect ‘work influenced and inspired by black culture’ and helps us remember the universal importance of the specific work we do.

What’s your favourite title of a work of art in the collection?

William Pope.L’s ‘Skin Set’ drawing Black People Are the Glory of a Shared Piece of Candy (2004).

What is the relationship between the contemporary exhibitions you stage and your historical collection?

It’s the relationship between the past and the future, and how the museum continually seeks to present the breadth and depth of work by artists of African descent.

Which contemporary artists do you find particularly interesting?

My curatorial practice has been profoundly informed by my 25-year-long conversation with the artist Glenn Ligon. He has singularly shaped how I see, think about and experience the power of art.

Which artist with a work in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem would you especially like to meet and why?

Alma Thomas (1891–1978). An incredible inspiration and, for me, one of the most significant abstract painters, Thomas gained recognition late in life after a wonderful career as an educator. We actually share the same birthday, so perhaps we could have a celebratory meal together!