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Founded during the tumultuous year of 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem recently celebrated its 50th year of showcasing the work of artists of African descent. In this episode, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, discusses the history and evolution of this important institution, from its various homes (including its new building project with architect David Adjaye and his firm Adjaye Associates) to the powerful curators who have shaped it into the future-focused institution it is today. All the while, Golden highlights the importance of the Studio Museum’s place in its community locally, nationally, and internationally.

Portrait of Thelma Golden wearing a black and white patterned dress in front of a blurry colorful background

Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Julie Skarratt

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The Studio Museum in Harlem

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
THELMA GOLDEN: This is, you know, truly, truly, truly, the most exciting moment. Not the specifics of the building itself, though that’s incredibly exciting, but what it represents.
JAMES CUNO: In this episode I speak with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The Studio Museum recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and is embarking on a large new building project designed by David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates, architect of the National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, DC.
I recently spoke with Thelma Golden about the Studio Museum, its history, and its future.
Thelma, thanks so much for giving us your time this morning.
THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you for having me.
CUNO: Now, the Studio Museum first opened a little over fifty years ago, in 1968. I say this in case our podcast listeners don’t know the early history of the museum. It opened in an 8,700-square-foot rented loft space not far from where you are on Fifth Avenue, just north of 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the main street of Harlem. At the time, the New York Times described it as sharing its space with a sweatshop where women run up garments for the downtown rag trade.
I know you weren’t there in the earliest years of the Studio Museum, but what was the motivation for the founding of the museum, and what were those early years like?
GOLDEN: Well, the founding and the motivation of the museum were incredibly clear. The museum was started by a group of amazing civic leaders, artists, philanthropists, community activists, and just art-interested people, who all wanted there to be a museum devoted to the work of black artists in Harlem. So at its founding, it really imagined itself as a space that would show art and create for audiences, the experience with art and artists.
CUNO: Was it a bold move, in 1968, to open the museum, to take on this great opportunity and risk?
GOLDEN: Yes. It was an incredibly bold move that was clearly moved ahead by deep faith and belief in Harlem. In Harlem’s future. But also, it was a recognition of Harlem’s past. You know, Harlem is the neighborhood that birthed the Harlem Renaissance, arguably one of the most important periods in American cultural history. And at the founding of the museum, the founders were looking back to this moment that Harlem was this incredible cultural metropolis.
But I also believe deeply that by founding the museum in 1968, in the Harlem of that moment, that the founders were also planting the seeds for the moment that we are in now. They were creating, in spirit and community, with leaders across the neighborhood, a sense of Harlem’s possibility in the future.
CUNO: Now, it opened with an exhibition of nonrepresentational electronic works by Tom Lloyd, not long after the assassination of Dr. King, and just a few weeks after the heavily political summer of 1968. I gather the exhibition was somewhat controversial at the time, considered by many as nothing more than a downtown art scene brought north to uptown. A tiny satellite, it was said, even at the time, of the white world. Was that really the case? Was it such a controversial opening
GOLDEN: Well, when we think about that moment now, you know, when we have the advantage of the possibility of hearing all of the different views of what happened, that was certainly one clear reaction, right? The idea that this exhibition of nonrepresentational—but perhaps as we’d say now, conceptual—art did not feel, for some, what would be appropriate for the Studio Museum in Harlem, a museum of black artists, to open with. But it’s interesting because the official record of that moment is only one. It’s one of the reasons, in this fiftieth year, I am so deeply invested in the idea of how we might, through the possibility of engaging with archive, tell this complex story.
Because what you just relayed was one reaction by some African American cultural leaders, who felt that Tom Lloyd’s work did not represent black art or black people, and it was this manifestation of a white idea of art at that time. But also, there were many other reactions that, on the other hand, welcomed Tom Lloyd’s work and welcomed the idea that the Studio Museum would be a museum devoted to the work of black artists; but would not necessarily define a way to say black art is this or is that, but allowed it to be many things.
Also, some people in the mainstream art world reacted to that choice by seeing it as being too avant-garde generally. Not about race, but again, about that moment when we think about the different art practices that— and languages that were being used; and that Tom Lloyd’s work fit into a larger conversation that was going on about really thinking about the art object and how and what it could be. So there were so many different reactions. And in many ways, when one teases them out, you see how the museum was, from the very start, at the center of a rich and complex conversation.
CUNO: In a way, you revisited, I guess, those pressures or those developments twelve years ago, when you opened an exhibition called Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964 – 1980. Looking back on the opening exhibition from the vantage point of just ten years ago or so, how do you think the work has changed over the course of time, the work of that period, with which you opened the museum? Not you yourself, but the museum opened.
GOLDEN: I think what has happened since that time is we’ve been able to allow for what is a broad and varied conversation. That exhibition which you refer to, Energy/Experimentation, was curated by Kellie Jones, an art historian and scholar, a professor at Columbia University, a former curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, involved with you in the amazing project that you are doing.
And what Kellie did with that project, and she’s done with so many of her groundbreaking, important projects, is she really created context that understood those artists working in abstract forms, both at the moment they were making the work, and put it into an art historical and cultural context; but also allowed for us to see that work as the precedent for so much practice that is happening today.
CUNO: Yeah. It’s telling that the museum is called the Studio Museum. Of course, a defining feature of it is the fact that artists are given a studio in the Studio Museum with which to do work and then to exhibit that work. That started at the very beginning, and has been consistent ever since?
GOLDEN: It has. So the studio program was one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest program, that the museum founded to create studio space for artists—emerging artists, early in their careers—to be able to work in the museum space; but also through the residency, receive support for their practice. And so it began when we began in ’68, and has continued ever since. And it really is the heart of the museum.
What the founders thought of was how they might bring art presentation, in the form of an exhibition program, and art practice, in the form of a studio program, together. And in that original space on Fifth Avenue, the studios were in the back of the loft; the exhibition space was in the front. And it was an incredibly fluid relationship between the studios and the gallery space.
In our building at 144 West 125th Street, the studios were on the third floor, looking out onto 125th Street, but really at the center of the building. And in the building that David Adjaye has designed, the studios remain in that central location. So for the future, the residency program will still have this key role in the life of the museum.
CUNO: And am I right in thinking that the residency program always results in exhibitions?
GOLDEN: It always does. So from the beginning, part of the program involves the presentation of the artist’s work. In the beginning of the program, the exhibitions did not always happen at the end of the residency; sometimes the presentation opportunity happened earlier. But beginning in the middle eighties, it always has been the culminating moment of the program. The artists come in the fall, and there’s an exhibition at the end of their residency the next year.
This year, that exhibition will open on June 9th. And we’re thrilled; we just announced a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, so that the artist-in-residence show this year and in a few years to come, while we’re out of our building, will happen at MoMA PS1.
CUNO: Oh, that’s fantastic. I didn’t know that. And I was gonna ask you about the fate of the studio program while you were closed for the building project, but now I know, so thank you for that. It seems impossible to talk to you about the Studio Museum and its early years without talking about the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition in 1969, Harlem on My Mind. That was controversial for a number of reasons, but clearly in part, because it meant to speak for what was Harlem and what Harlem’s culture stood for. Could you talk a bit about that what effect that might’ve had on the early development of the Studio Museum?
GOLDEN: Well, Harlem on My Mind stands as an incredibly potent cultural moment, when we talk about the sort of representation and we talk about the history of exhibition as it relates to race and representation in museums. In many ways, there are some narratives that might position our founding as having some relationship to the conversation that could create an exhibition like Harlem on My Mind. But really, in many ways, I think the museum’s early life provided a counterpoint to what became the critique of that exhibition.
And I am so indebted to my colleague Susan Cahan, who wrote the book Mounting Frustration, which sort of takes on that moment, looking at Harlem on My Mind; along with the protests that were happening at the Whitney Museum in that era; as well as protests at the Museum of Modern Art; and then later, the reactions to the Primitism[sic] exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; and finally, in another chapter in that book, Susan takes on the early years of the Studio Museum.
And what you see from her volume and from her scholarship is the way in which there’s an interconnected set of circumstance happening in that moment. And when I look at our history, I see how the museum, from its initial founding, always sought to create a sense of both autonomy and authority around ideas of representation and presentation. So that the museum always formed itself as an alternative model, right, understanding what were the limitations of the ways in which we could understand the work by black artists and the representation of black people.
And that by authoring in a very radical way, through art historical discourse, through incredible engagements in canon revision, through original scholarship, through exhibition, that’s what formed, in many ways, the museum’s mission to create that. And then through that, to potentially, as it has, change the way in which exhibition would not only be made, but understood.
CUNO: You know, from the beginning, the Studio Museum has been engaged with exhibiting work by diasporic artists, artists of African descent, whether they are resident in the United States or not. How has that changed over the years and what are the pressures on the programmatic aspect of the museum, because that diasporic world is so large and so diverse?
GOLDEN: So you are right. This has always been inherent to the museum’s mission, to show the work of black artists and to think about diaspora in broad ways. The significant shift in what that meant to the museum came not in actuality. That is, we’ve always collected artists from around the world, always showed artists from around the world, had an exhibition program that at its core was global. But we made an important shift when Lowery Stokes Sims was director of the museum and I was her deputy director and chief curator, to rewrite the mission of the museum, which had been something like: the Studio Museum is a museum that preserves, presents, interprets, and collects the work of African American artists, and artifacts of the African diaspora. Right?
So that had been, in different combinations, the mission of the museum when Lowery and I came in 2000. We rewrite that mission to say: the Studio Museum in Harlem is a museum that preserves, presents, collects, and interprets the work of artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally. Right? So really, that was about an acknowledgement of a shift of perspective, not a change in program or process, that took away, perhaps, a centralizing of the African American experience and really acknowledged a global presence in the present, which then allowed an understanding of our relationship to art made by artists from the continent, in the diaspora, in America, in past and present.
CUNO: Was there any pushback from local artists—that is, from US artists, African American artists—on this, thinking that there was going to be less opportunity for them because you were going to be concerned with a much broader field of art and you had limited time and limited space in which to show it?
GOLDEN: Yes. I think that certainly in some sense, there was some concern about that. And perhaps even before. I don’t think it ever was argued around a sort of personal sense of concern that there’d be less shows or less collecting of them; but more about a more fundamental issue. And that is, where African American culture fit into that. Now, I have to give a lot of credit to the work that went into thinking through to get to that sentence, to my colleague, my dear colleague, Okwui Enwezor.
Because through example in his work, and then quite literally through direct work with myself, our curatorial team, my board, a strategic planning process, Okwui helped us travel the path to get to that mission. And in many ways, what the response to it was, particularly by black artists, was actually an appreciation of their work, their practice, their ideas being contextualized globally. Right? Because as you know, Jim, in many ways, a category called African American art is one that many artists had resisted.
Because it took away from them, the idea that their work was embedded in a multiple strands of intellectual and aesthetic thought. And moving towards this idea of artists of African descent, it allowed us to sort of talk about artists’ work in a global context, and then also to think about how their work was part of a specific story and a larger story, and how those two things could sit side by side very productively.
CUNO: In a way, I guess you could say that the Studio Museum exists to register those developments over the course of time, over many decades, the developments in the kind of conceptualization of African art, African diasporic art, and the role of African Americans within it. It must be that you can look over the course of the exhibitions history of the Studio Museum and begin to see the broadening and narrowing, and broadening and broadening further, of the concept of the diasporic art commitment that you’ve made. Is there a sense that there had been peaks and valleys, and then more peaks as it developed over time?
GOLDEN: I think there is that sense, certainly. But perhaps more significantly for me, what we see is the way in which artists themselves have been at the forefront of creating self-definition. And the institution has opened itself and widened itself and allowed itself always to be reactive to those broad definitions. So that goes back to even our first exhibition. This is never a museum that sought to define what the work by black artists should be.
We do see different ways in which those definitions are made by others. And in many cases, you see in our exhibition program, exhibitions that react to that, certainly. But on the other hand, what I think I benefit from is when I look over the course of time, what I see is the possibility, made real by the museum, of the idea that black artists can and should have space. And how that space is defined can be an incredibly collaborative process of intellectual and curatorial practice.
CUNO: You know, one measure of the greatness and importance of the Studio Museum is its ability to attract and keep extraordinary directors. And in the case of the Studio Museum, they’ve been primarily women directors. Is the museum conscious of that? And how important is it that not only has it had a string of very successful and important directors, but that they have been women, and what that represents for the field?
GOLDEN: I think we are all very proud of that at the Studio Museum. I am the seventh director of this museum in our fifty years. I’m incredibly proud of that. There’s been an even and, you know, wonderfully steady sort of movement between directors. I did not have the privilege of knowing our first three directors, though I’ve gotten to know Mr. Spriggs in these last few years, and I knew of—because he was such a legendary, important New Yorker—Mr. Innis, of course. Because he had a life not only with this institution, but so many important institutions in New York City.
His legacy is in all of our institutions. But I did, and I do, and I feel privileged to know Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, and Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims. And I worked for all of them. My first encounter with the Studio Museum was when I was an in— a college intern, in 1985, my sophomore year at Smith College. Mary Schmidt Campbell was director at that time. She hired me to come back as a fellow when I graduated from Smith College in 1987.
She then left the museum to become New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs, I believe in ’88, and Kinshasha Holman Conwill became director while I was working as a fellow. I left and then went to the Whitney in 1989. And in all those years, knew Lowery Stokes Sims. She was a friend and a mentor. And then we were neighbors, when she was at the Metropolitan Museum and I was at the Whitney. And so [I] spent many years with Lowery close by, supporting me in my work.
And in 1999, when she was named director of the museum and she hired me to be her deputy director, I had the privilege of working with her for five years, until I became director in 2006. So I feel literally like— as if those three women are holding my hand every day, and feel incredibly privileged to have them in my world and in my life. I feel as if the great advantage of having Dr. Campbell, who now, post being our commissioner of cultural affairs, post being dean of the Tisch School for the Arts, and now being president of Spelman College, has been such an incredible example of leadership for me and has been so present in helping me find my way as a leader of this institution.
She is so generous in her praise of what I’m doing. But I tell here that at core, all I’m trying to do is to not mess up everything she did. Honestly. Like, that’s really what it comes down to. And also, at the same time, because I first interned in her Studio Museum, my idea of the museum begins for me in the eighties. And when I think of the challenges that perhaps I face, I’m always faced with the reality of what Mary did then, with so much less than I have. And it makes everything I have to do seem completely surmountable.
And also, as I said, Lowery was a mentor. I was a high school intern at the Met. I spent my entire two years at the Metropolitan Museum as a high school intern walking around hoping that I would run into the legendary Lowery Stokes Sims, whose picture I saw in the New York Times. And I never ran into her in all those years. I didn’t meet her until later. But you know, to have worked for her and to have had here as a curatorial example, and then to become her chief curator and to continue to have her as a constant source of inspiration as I take these steps, which began when we were working together. Thinking about the museum was, you know, Lowery’s first charge when she became director.
And then Kinshasha, who of course, is in Washington and really shepherded the National Museum of African American History and Culture into being. And knowing that she brought the ethos of who she was and how she thinks about institution and museum and black culture to bear, to help make that incredible, amazing project happen—you know, all of that is just— That’s sort of where my superpower comes from. It’s all that inspiration that I have right in front of me.
CUNO: Well, it’s confirmation of the strength and importance of the museum that it attracts the talent that it has, and it’s kept you all together as alumnae of this great institution, and mutually supportive of each other in the process. Now, I know that when Mary was director—she came to the museum at the age of twenty-nine—one of the things that she was tasked to do by the board of trustees was to build, effectively, what they called a real museum; that is, a collecting institution. And that what trustees want, of course, is one thing; what an institution can respond with is yet another thing. How did the Studio Museum adjust to a collecting institution and to all the responsibilities such an institution would require?
GOLDEN: Becoming a collecting institution was sort of paramount to the museum’s mission, which at founding, acknowledged that black artists were under-collected, underrecognized. And having a collection at the Studio Museum was one of the important ways in which the museum sought to shift and change the canon, by creating a collection that would tell the story of the breadth and the depth of the contributions of black artists, and to create the context to understand where these artists fit in the larger story of art history was such important work. So when Mary took on that task, it was one that stood at the center, and remains at the center, of who and what we are.
And when one looks at that collection and how it began and how it developed, there’s so much there that then we can look at the sort of larger art histories that have been written or continue to be written. And you see where the museum had such an impact in what we see on the walls of many museums today.
CUNO: When the museum decided to take on the collecting responsibilities, of course, it had to move from its initial facility to a much larger facility. And the architect of that new building was Max Bond, who would go on to design the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta; but also the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in Birmingham, Alabama; Harlem’s own Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library. In other words, the trustees chose an architect who was going to bring to the center, a legacy of the culture from which the museum springs. And now you’re taking on this great big building project, and you’ve chosen another legacy architect, an architect of distinction, but also one who brings to the task the importance of a national museum. Tell me a little bit about the selection of David Adjaye and how that went, and when did it start…
GOLDEN: Well, I’m so glad you mention Max Bond, the late Max Bond, who again, was a dear supporter and mentor, someone who I knew, along with his amazing wife Jean, from the time I was a high school student. And Max took on this building that we have at 144 West 125th Street, that had been built in 1914 as a bank and an office building. And it was a prime example of adaptive reuse, which was the case all over Harlem at that moment. That is, buildings that had had another life, in another life in Harlem, that were now underused or perhaps even vacant, that were being reclaimed, and creating in the reclamation new institutions for the Harlem that was becoming.
So Max did an incredible feat of magic turning this kind of late, you know, nineteenth century style cast iron office building into a museum. And some of that was just an act of faith, by saying this is a museum and then designing inside of it. But the other part of that story—and you relayed a amazing part of Max’s history—that needs to be said as you the ask me the question about David Adjaye, is that Max put together the team, FAB—Freelon, Adjaye, Bond—that was in the competition, that won the commission, to do the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Max brought together—
CUNO: I didn’t know that. So Max Bond was part of that.
GOLDEN: No, Max led it, and he brought to the table Phil Freelon and David Adjaye. Sadly, Max died before the museum opened. Something that is hard for all of us to imagine, because his vision— You know, and that competition is one that someday will be studied because if you know, it was a group of amazing architectural teams. But Max had, through the résumé you just read, a vision of what it means to make institutions for and about culture. That was his incredible genius. And David has that, as well.
So I have known David Adjaye as an architect and a colleague for decades. We live in the same cultural world, and were first connected through artists. A lot of David’s early work is for artists, many artists that I had worked with curatorially. And so our cultural worlds and our intellectual worlds were incredibly connected.
And David, from the time I got to the Studio Museum in my early days, 2000-2001, was a real thought partner with me as I thought about space and how I could actualize a program in my role as chief curator, in the space as it existed.
When we began as an institution, board and staff, to think about our future, some of that conversation, Jim, was incredibly practical. Our 1914 building was just suffering. Needed new everything. And one of the most wonderful and amazing and funny conversations I had with Max Bond towards the end of life—though we did not know it was towards the end of his life—is at one point when I was trying, for the 4,000th time, to figure out what was wrong with our HVAC system, and yet another new consultant came and asked me some very specific question about not, you know, the chiller and not the this, but something about the ductwork, right? Wanting to know, you know, when was it replaced?
And I called Max, because he remained close to the Studio Museum. He’d been a board member before he did the renovation. And so I called him and I said, “Max, the consultant’s asking me about, you know, when the ductwork was replaced.” And he laughed and he said, “Thelma,” he goes, “you don’t need to call me and ask me these questions. Blanket answer: everything is original to the 1980 renovation.”
To which, of course, the consultant answered me that, you know, these ducts were well beyond their useful life by, like, three. So on one level, I was like, listen, we’ve lived a long time with it. But it became very clear that there wasn’t a potential to keep fixing things. This was also— I have to say, we were very fortunate, because we have been incredibly privileged to have the support of the City of New York, through the Department of Cultural Affairs, through various administrations over our fifty-year life. And at the time of these conversations, it was during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, and our commissioner was the incredible Kate Levin.
And she also, in a very practical way, pushed us, the Studio Museum board and staff, to sort of think practically about what could be fixed. Or perhaps, was there a better way for us to march towards the future? And that led to a study for a major renovation. And then the major renovation study proved that perhaps our best option was to build a new building. Now, originally, it wasn’t the idea that it would be on our site; it was an idea that perhaps we would leave our site and find another in Harlem.
But this was also happening at the very same time, when so much was happening in the real estate and development world of Harlem that made looking for a space, looking for a lot very hard. It also showed us—again, Mary picked this site—but it showed us the brilliance of Mary, who picked this incredible site, when she found this building in 1979, literally right in the middle, if you go east-west, of 125th Street. You know, one block east of the Apollo Theater, just you know, so centrally located.
So we ended up in a process of imagining that we would knock down the current building, which is, you know, called Kenwood[sp?] Office Building, where the Studio Museum lives, and build a new building. And with that, we started a formal architectural search with a board committee. Looked at nine firms, talked to five, and brought three to the table, through a multi-day-for-each-firm interview process, and selected Adjaye Associates, who partnered with Cooper Robertson.
CUNO: And when did this all start? What was the financial context like?
GOLDEN: Well, the financial context, it was just after ’08. But again, the conversation first began with, you know, can we take a comprehensive view of some of the mechanical system challenges and look at what might be an integrated renovation of HVAC, along with electrical, along with plumbing, all together, right? And then once we said that, and then some cosmetic changes to gallery space, that was ’08, ’09. And yes, it was a moment where the question of how we would raise the money was there.
But the truth is, Jim, that even if hadn’t made that decision, we had some significant expenditures ahead of us, just to maintain the standard that we, of course, only would consider working in. Now, we had a crisis at a point when the air conditioning failed and we were meant to take an exhibition. And literally, it was on the truck, on the way to the Studio Museum, and we weren’t able to take it. And what again I remain grateful for every day is the support and love of my colleagues in the city and around the country. But specifically my colleagues in the city.
And when I called my colleague Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum, to ask him how to handle cancelling a show— Like, I just didn’t even know where to start, but knew that maybe this is what we were doing. That conversation immediately turned into Adam offering to deinstall a gallery in the then 945 Madison Avenue Whitney Museum building, to allow us to hang this exhibition at the Whitney, to be able to honor all of the commitments we had to school groups and community groups and our teen programs that could happen at the Whitney with the exhibition on the wall. And that made it so that what would’ve been a terrible, terrible situation actually turned around into an example, again, of real institutional partnership.
But it was in that moment that the conversation even about renovation began to speed up. Right? We realized, like, okay, this is what will happen if we cannot get our hands around what the needs are. So that the conversation began in earnest about 2010. And we, you know, ended up in a project somewhat after that. I would say we’ve been in a building project officially for now six years.
CUNO: It must seem like the full tenure of your directorship.
GOLDEN: Oh, it seems like from the day I came. That’s why it’s hard for me to answer this question, and I should write it down. Because so much of what this building project is about, you know, is fundamental. Because I’ll say the other side of it many people enter into building projects for practical reasons. And the practical side of this story definitely was real; but there was a whole other way in which we walked towards this as a board and as staff of people committed to this institution.
And that was the opportunity of understanding the museum’s life at this point, as we looked at fifty years of this institution. And understanding that, you know, what our founders had was the great will and bright faith of the legitimacy of this institution and of its power and of its possibility. And fifty years later, how do we continue to honor that? And we knew that over the years of all of those directors, as well as the many generations of curators and educators and all administrative staff at the institution, that we had created a program so much greater, so much more significant than the physical space should have ever allowed. And so it also is about creating a museum that lived at the same level as our program already existed in the world.
CUNO: So tell us about the architectural program. When we walk into the new building, how will it be different than the old building or the existing building?
GOLDEN: Well, the old building is an office building that was a bank. And everything about how we made it a museum was quite simply through Max’s brilliance of taking those spaces and saying what are the needs, and making the spaces into spaces that could live for us as those needs.
So for example, you know, we had galleries that were in what was the main space of the bank itself. But none of those walls were ever meant to show art, and the space was not built in rooms. So you know, I came to the Studio Museum after a curatorial career in Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum. My whole sense of exhibition design was based on Breuer’s brilliant geometry. And here I walked into a space where there was only one wall that was over ten feet high and there were very few corners. And you know, there was no way to create narrative in space. That being said, I’ve made some of the best shows of my career. And that had nothing to do with having great spaces.
So what the new building does is it really just creates, in so many ways that are absolutely significant—and that’s the brilliance of David Adjaye and his design—it creates space for all of the ways in which the museum exists. When we set out in the architectural process, of course, we had a brief that included all of the many practicalities that were necessary. And some of them, you know, would seem even pedestrian, but they were real. I mean, in our current building, we have never had a loading dock, and we’ve never had a door that has been higher than eight feet.
So that means everything that people have seen over the years that’s bigger than that, that’s been in the Studio Museum, it’s been unstretched on the street or carried across 125th Street. Now, people in the neighborhood love that, right? When people say to me, “Oh, I was walking by. I saw this painting coming across the street.” And I am glad that we provided those wonderful interventions of art in real time on the street; but I am so thrilled that this new building has a loading dock that a truck can back into. And that artworks will be able to come out and come seamlessly into a holding room that will connect directly, you know, to everything else.
But more importantly than those practical issues, the building is meant to echo the real values of the institution: accessibility, openness, and art at its center. So you walk in off the street into what are two stories of glass. So that is, when you are on the street, you already will see what is happening in the museum. And you come into a lobby that will allow you the opportunity to go upstairs, elevator or stairs, into three floors of galleries, as well as educational classroom spaces. Or will allow you to go one story downstairs, into what will be an[sic] gathering space that is really centered around a space that David has named the inverted stoop which lives in the daytime as a stair space that people can sit on, convene, be present in; but also will function for us as a space where we can have public programs. And that’s adjacent to a café, a welcome center for our education programs, as well as coat check, restrooms, et cetera. So a public space in which all of that can come together.
And the idea there is, is that the museum can have many things happening at once, and that the experience of the museum starts at the street and allows you to come into both this sort of public convening space, as well as then into the gallery spaces. Now, the galleries have been designed to do everything that we all would want in our gallery spaces. And it’s quite simply to be able to show art, and to do it in ways that are flexible, but also that elevate the experience of being able to be in a space with works of art.
And the spaces as designed allow us to do that. They have been designed to allow us to have different scale exhibitions. And we’re thrilled for that. And they are adjacent to both the artist studio spaces, as well as our education spaces. So the experience, again, of what it means for a visitor to perhaps be in the galleries, our school groups, and then go directly into the education spaces, or the way those spaces can all be used in different ways at different times is really something we’re all looking forward to.
And then we have an administrative floor. And then a roof that will be a roof garden that will allow us to, in the good weather, of course—I’m saying this on a snowy day in New York—but in the good weather, to have program outside. But also just to be an open green space in the middle of one of New York’s most populace and exciting and, you know, frenetic streets, 125th Street. So six stories above, we hope, creating a small oasis in the midst of all of that.
CUNO: Well, that’s breathtaking. Now, how far along in the project are you?
GOLDEN: Well, we’ve just begun demolition of 144 West 125th Street. And that will go on for some months, as the building comes down, and then we’ll begin building.
CUNO: When is it due to open?
GOLDEN: We are imagining 2023. Late 2022 or early 2023.
CUNO: Yeah. How are you holding up?
GOLDEN: Well, look, I mean—
CUNO: You must be exhausted.
GOLDEN: No, I am exhilarated. This is, you know, truly, truly, truly, the most exciting moment. Not the specifics of the building itself, though that’s incredibly exciting, but what it represents. I mean, David says—and I do, as well, quite often—that as much as this building is very much about the bricks and the mortar and the steel and the marble, it really is about the space that’s being created to house this institution that has lived so deeply and so importantly in the cultural landscape but also has claimed such important geographic space in Harlem, interview space, and I even say spiritual space, when we talk about the heart and soul of black culture, and it being made manifest through the work of artists.
CUNO: You must feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for all that the Studio Museum has accomplished in the course of its fifty years, and what it represents to all of us. How do you feel the pressure in the daily work that you do?
GOLDEN: It’s not a pressure, Jim, it’s a privilege. You know? This institution means so much to so many. It lives a life that has been at the center of so much that’s important to many of us, right? This museum has shown what it means to create museum in reflection of community, but in communion with culture. So it’s a privilege to do this work. It’s a privilege to be director in this moment. I see myself as just one, again, of this incredible succession of directors. And someone will come after me, and I hope they’ll feel the same sense of inspiration about what this museum means.
CUNO: Well, Thelma, thank you so much for all the time you’ve given us on this podcast to tell us about the history and the future of the museum. And we all look to you as one of the great leaders in our field, and we’re grateful that you’re there at this time.
GOLDEN: Thank you.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
THELMA GOLDEN: This is, you know, truly, truly, truly, the most exciting moment. Not the specif...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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