Rebecca Roberts: Do you feel there’s a certain urgency for public engagement with the arts in today’s climate? And is there a renewed responsibility to artists and curators to speak to our times? 

Thelma Golden: Museums are, at heart, places for the public to engage with art. The Studio Museum is deeply committed to providing a space for dialogue about art and society. The content of this dialogue may change frequently, based on the works of art on view and on the broader context of what is happening in the world. But our responsibility, which we take very seriously, is to provide opportunities for people to see what artists are making today, what artists have made in the past, and respond to it in their own way, on their own terms.  

RR: There is a constant need for art, artists, and the community to enhance their engagement and help support one another. Is there a clear path for this? How do we better break down the barriers between the general public and the “art world” to create a more
open dialogue?

TG: Community engagement is critical to all that we do. A museum without a community, without people meaningfully engaging with the work on view, does not fulfill our ideals. At the Studio Museum, we are continually working on how to do this well—our ongoing project, Harlem Postcards, literally lets people see Harlem through the eyes of artists and to take an image, through the postcard, home with them. Our major new initiative, inHarlem, is a series of exhibitions and programs presented outside the walls of the Studio Museum in partnership with our fellow cultural and educational institutions in the neighborhood. Presentations like Smokehouse, 1968–1970, now on view at the Museum, remind us that artists have long valued real connections to their neighbors and communities. Most important, though, is for museums to actively listen to our communities and visitors—it strengthens us, it strengthens our collaborators, and it gives us all more immediate connections to a broader public.

RR: Has the mission of the Studio Museum in Harlem changed since you’ve been director? Or at least the approach toward that mission as the cultural and political climates shift?

TG: I feel that the founding mission of the Museum has great alignment with the work we are doing today. In the late 1960s, a diverse group of visionaries dreamed of a new kind of institution: a museum in Harlem and of the world, a museum that recognized the underrecognized geniuses of that generation and sought to bring up the next. 

Perhaps the biggest change during my tenure has been the growing recognition of the artists and artworks we support throughout the national and international art world. I am so proud of that, but it is the result of many, many years of work by the pioneers who came before me.

Perhaps the biggest change in the work that we are doing is that we are entering into the next phase of our institutional history, as we approach our 50th anniversary in 2018. To better serve our community, our artists, and our visitors, we have committed ourselves to constructing a completely new, purpose-built home on our current site, with a design by David Adjaye in collaboration with Cooper Robertson.

RR: As a native New Yorker, do you think you have a specific context for the museum and its agenda that is crucial?

TG: The words “in Harlem” are integral to the name and identity of this institution. We are a museum with a global audience, and we concern ourselves with the work of artists of African descent everywhere in the world. At the same time, though, we are deeply, ineradicably rooted in the Harlem community—a place that loomed large in my life as I was growing up in Queens as the daughter of a Harlem native, and a place that I am now proud to call my home.

RR: One of the spring shows, Regarding the Figure, presents works from the museum’s permanent collection. As a curator, is there a different relationship to the show when you’re working from the museum’s own collection? 

TG: At any museum, an exhibition drawn from the permanent collection is an occasion for pride. Exhibitions and programs are the most visible part of a museum’s work, but our collection is an incredibly important part of our mission. It’s our job and our privilege to preserve great works of art by artists of African descent—and influenced and inspired by black culture—for generations to come. At the Studio Museum, our collection is especially unique because a large portion has been built through acquisitions of works by our artists in residence or artists who have participated in exhibitions here. So a collection exhibition, for us, reflects in many ways the history otf our programs and activities and allows us to look back at some of the close relationships we have developed and maintained with the leading artists of our time.

RR: Is there a particular moment in the spring exhibitions that you are most excited for visitors to experience?

TG: There are so many wonderful works on view and wonderful programs scheduled that it’s so hard to answer. I personally find great joy when people let me know what their favorite moment was, or a work of art that spoke to them. 

But I do love that moment when someone walks through the door for the first time and we say, “Welcome to The Studio Museum in Harlem.”

Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.