The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

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MAY 2017 Issue
Art Museum Directors

Thelma Golden with Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier

Portrait of Thelma Golden. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Thelma Golden. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Thelma Golden, Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, is a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens a precocious art lover. After graduating from Smith College with a BA in Art History and African-American Studies, in 1987 she became a curator at the Studio Museum. From 1988 to 1998 she was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she organized many exhibitions, including the seminal Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art (1994 – 95). Since joining the Studio Museum in 2000, she has organized exhibitions by Glenn Ligon, Chris Ofili, and Martin Puryear; three of her thematic shows are Black Romantic (2002); Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor (2004); and Afro Muses (2005). She was appointed Director of the Museum in 2005.

Joachim Pissarro: I’d love to start with the wonderful flag you have outside by David Hammons, whom I have had the pleasure to meet. Glenn Lowry asked me, along with another curator, to include it in the rehang of the MoMA mezzanine. This is an unlimited edition, I believe.

Thelma Golden: This one is unique. The MoMA work is in an edition, but it’s one of the ones that hang indoors—this is a real flag. David made this and the ones at PS1 for outside use—they are slightly different in their construction.

Pissarro: I asked David, “Do you have any preference for how you’d like us to hang it inside?” He said, “I don’t care. For all that matters to me, you could actually burn it. In fact, why don’t you burn it and show the action?”

He’s been quintessential in captivating the audience on the polarization that has been infecting the cultural map of this country. How do you respond to this gesture? (We didn’t burn the flag, of course, we hung it loosely on the big wall in the western part of the museum.)

Golden: David Hammons is very important to this museum: his flag is on the front of this building not only to signal the full force of what we are as an institution, but also to declare where we are and who we are. It does that very specifically out on 125th Street, but also infuses the work done inside the building.

Pissarro: You immediately mention where we are, 125th Street, which is not a neutral zone. It’s important in so many ways—with its subway station, in its demarcation of Harlem—how did you and the Studio Museum come to be established here?

Golden: We were founded in 1968. Our original space was a rented loft on 5th Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets. The museum had been in formation for a few years with the distinct idea that there needed to be a museum in Harlem devoted to presenting the work of black artists, and also deeply invested in the community, as an institution that would engage in the presentation of art and art education, and cultural awareness. In 1979, the director, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, understood that the life of the institution depended on a permanent physical space that could support what the museum was, and also what it was hoping to be. It was also a moment when the community was reimagining itself, thinking about what it had been—looking back to the Harlem Renaissance, understanding Harlem as the creator of a critical moment in black modernism—and also looking at the future of what the neighborhood could be after years of neglect and decline. During that period, many believed that culture would be a critical part of that reinvention.

This building was acquired in 1979, and renovated by the architect J. Max Bond, Jr. We reopened here in 1982. It’s a 1914 building that was built as a bank, when 125th was the main street of upper Manhattan. Being here was about the geography of Harlem and 125th Street, the iconic sensibility. The location was intentional: we thought of ourselves as part of the community.

David Carrier: Around the time you did the twentieth-anniversary symposium at the New Museum on Black Male—in 2014—you spoke of the feeling that, in order to make that exhibition, it was as if a new language had to be invented. I think that kind of phrase could be generalized. It’s a grammatical idea of an exhibition.

Golden: It expresses what is my firm belief about the possibility of my own curatorial practice, less about institutions. I was trained as an art historian during what’s now called “the culture wars,” but I was still raised within an art history that believed in a canon. So, while there was openness, in that you could move outside the canon, it was still positioned as this margin-center idea. I was a sophomore in college when I interned here at the museum. Dr. Campbell, as an art historian, made it very clear to me that my education in American art had to be supplemented by knowledge of African-American artists, because at the time it wasn’t in the textbooks the way it is now. When I became a curator, it became clear to me that, despite the training, I needed a new language in order to create a new environment where I could do the kind of exhibition-making to open a space I could imagine would be productive.

I made a conscious choice not to be an art historian. I went to an undergraduate art history program that has proudly graduated many women who are doing really important, rigorous work. I’m deeply interested in museums, the spaces in which the art and the artist engage with the public. I have absolutely no interest when that’s not part of the conversation. I have loved artworks in the abstract, but for me, generally, they only exist with importance when they hit up against real time, real history, real context. Even more so, now that I’m the director of this museum.

Pissarro: I’d like to go back to the etymology of the word “politics.” What you describe is when the art goes out of the textbooks, and African Americans tend not to be so present.

Golden: But it’s in there now. When I was in school, it wasn’t there at all. When I came of age as a curator in the ’90s, after this amazing moment of the ’80s when all that ground was paved for me, it was a significant opening for me to even be able to express that I wanted to create a new language to make exhibitions like Black Male. The truth is, I see the power of that change coming from art history but also curatorial practice. Curatorial practice is intellectual work, weaponized.

Carrier: There’s a story in your literature that I found affecting: your description of growing up in New York City, going down to SoHo as a teenager.

Golden: I grew up in Queens. My parents were both born and raised in New York City, my father here in Harlem and my mother in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Everything in this neighborhood is deeply familiar, because it’s my father’s. This building was a bank until the ’60s, and it was his bank.

As a teenager I was very lucky to go to an incredible private school on Long Island and had a teacher who taught us art history from Janson. My first Janson was from Buckley Country Day School. I still have that Janson book; it’s what gave me the idea that art was of interest to me.

When I began going to school in Manhattan, I took the subway by myself, and would spent a lot of time in the museums in the city. I was deeply nurtured by museum guards who were incredibly gratified to see me, a young black woman, in those museums. Many of those men have passed on now, but early in my career they all still worked in museums and saw me become a curator. I was invisible in the museums to the patrons, but the guards would come around the corners. That’s how I saw [Jacob] Lawrence’s “Migration Series”! It was a guard who told me.

That was also the moment SoHo happened, so I went to galleries, too. More often than not, these were not places people behind desks would welcome me into. O.K., Harris was an exception: they were incredibly friendly and would do all the things that they’d do now when I go to a gallery. Not that others were outwardly mean, but I’ve always understood my visibility and invisibility.

Pissarro: You almost quote word by word my dear friend Adrian Piper, about visibility and invisibility, and I’d like to come back to that. But the concept you put on the table for your work as a curator—access. I remember Alice Walton invited me to a dinner with people from her foundation, and Glenn Lowry, Adam Weinberg, Tom Campbell—a whole group of museum directors. She launched into this tirade about diversity, and despite all the talk the statistics: Yes, yes we’re very aware of this, but what she’s going to do about it? Do you want to talk about how you’ve become a model for people like Alice Walton? In this “white boys club”?

Golden: Transformative change in the field is what represents true diversity. I was the first African-American curator at the Whitney in 1991, and I feel strongly about the way in which diversity makes institutions better. My own work has been about how I, as director of this museum, can be an advocate towards radical transformative diversity. I do that personally here through proactive training of curators, knowing that the ability to understand institutional change comes from enabling it through the exhibition program. This institution, small in size and not old in age, could have an impact larger than our size—by allowing our work to influence the field in real ways. That’s as important as exhibition-making.

When we think about diversity, we need to think in different institutional terms: first the diversity of board and staff, in terms of leadership; we can talk about diversity of program, what an institution produces, collects, presents; and then we can talk about audience. These are distinctive areas, with different ways of understanding what they are. Any institution invested in diversity wants to talk about them all, but it’s important to understand that they are not the same.

The Studio Museum was founded during a paradigm shift, when those three things were possible. This institution saw itself as a model that could do that, one that could have a diverse board and staff, a program that spoke to the exclusions within culture, and created a level of access, and the possibility to create new audiences.

Pissarro: I wonder if this reflected on what you said of yourself as a child and being given access to the museum as one of the few African Americans of your generation. People who were your conduits to the art world?

Golden: When we talk about access to culture, we’re not only talking about race. We’re talking about class. College-educated, middle-class parents were what gave me access to culture. Access is a class issue, and it does hit race.

My experience with museum guards remains transformative. They are frontline staff, and sometimes have profound interactions with the public. When I was visiting the National Gallery a couple of weeks ago, a museum guard, an African-American man, saw me looking at the Glenn Ligon neon Double America. He came up to me and very politely said, “You know, he’s an African-American artist.” And, that “they”—referring to the museum—“bought this.” He knew what that meant. What he saw in me was an African-American woman visiting the museum. He didn’t see me as a curator or museum director. He wanted to make sure that I, as a museum visitor, had a direct connection to the work.

Pissarro: How did you respond?

Golden: I said, “Thank you for telling me that. Do a lot of people look at it?” He said, “Yes, I talk to them about it. It’s about America.” I have this sort of experience all over the country, and I tell my colleagues about it. It’s inevitable. I was at the Whitney at the Danny Lyon show (Message to the Future, 2016), and a guard said to me: “You have to watch this video, today.” Here we were in the world, feeling what is meant to be yet another moment of the intensity of this brutality to black bodies. And there’s this guard literally in real time, saying that to me. So I feel deeply about this.

What’s interesting is when I do out myself to a guard, and I say, “I’m a curator,” they usually say, “Never met an African-American curator.” That opens up some of the most profound conversations I’ve had about institutional ideals. Many guards from the city visit me here because we have these conversations about access, audience, what it means to welcome.

Pissarro: That’s extraordinary.

Golden: The Black Male show began with Fred Wilson’s piece Guarded View—four mannequins in guard uniforms. That piece came from a performance piece he did at the Whitney in 1993. Fred, like many artists, worked as a guard at museums; he dressed like a guard up in the collection show one Sunday and began talking about works of art, and the reactions from audiences were a whole range…

Pissarro: Is there a video?

Golden: Maybe. Fred and I have always wondered about that. Fred and I went to Washington when Bob Gober’s Hanging Man / Sleeping Man wallpaper was in the show, and guards expressed concern about guarding the room. Fred and I witnessed that. This is my fundamental DNA as a museum director, understanding that artists, institutions, and audience are deeply important to me. It’s a triangle. Putting up a show is important but being present in it is equally important. I don’t believe that once a show is up, my job as curator is over. I need to be in contact with the audience. That’s the show! The exhibition lives as such. Black Male was an idea in my head, a thesis. Without the audience, without engagement and public conversation, it would’ve simply been a book.

I operate with a deep sense of optimism, acknowledging the privilege that makes possible my position as a curator and museum director, given all the cultural and political circumstances. While I could perhaps bemoan what remains of these circumstances, what I choose to do is imagine that these spaces, even with the friction, allow us more velocity towards change. For example, I feel deeply that while museums are not always understood fully by all audiences, we have the opportunity to meet audiences where they are, to create space that makes it possible for art to be the agent of engagement. I don’t curate in a vacuum, and I believe deeply that the echo chamber that comes from what is just an art conversation doesn’t serve artists.

Carrier: It seems to me that we’re talking about art museums, or the “high art” world, and that the kind of issues that we have don’t exist when you talk about music or film, popular culture. They don’t think so openly in terms of the audience. Is it a problem with the museum context?

Golden: I don’t know if I can accept the term “high art.” I think other disciplines have other relationships to their audience and canonical presentation and establishments and issues of power and authority. I really can’t speak to those fields. Because the only thing I’ve ever done is work in museums. I have a narrow frame of reference. In terms of access to culture, people are experiencing culture all the time. What is defined as culture is complex and problematic. I want my Harlem community to experience visual art in the same way they experience popular music. In the same way they experience jazz and social dance and film and community gatherings.

Pissarro: I’ve always thought of you as a phenomenal museum director, and it’s interesting that in this interview you’ve insisted that you are a curator.

Golden: By both training and profession. I graduated from Smith College in 1987 with a degree in Art History and African-American Studies. That was deeply influenced by my internship [at the Studio Museum] in 1985. I was a student in those years of James Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin made me understand what it meant to steward culture, so I understood curating in a dynamic sense already. I knew the work that I hoped to do. I began my career at the Studio Museum in a fellowship for a year and then I was at the Whitney for two years as Richard Armstrong’s Curatorial Assistant. Then for a year I was Kellie Jones’s assistant as she was working on many projects out of a small alternative art space in Queens. And then back to the Whitney as a Curator in 1991, until 1998, before coming here as Chief Curator in 2000, and then becoming Director in 2005. My whole career right there. I say curator.

However, I am a museum director: I believe deeply in museums, feel as if I was trained and nurtured by a group of museum directors, almost all of whom are still living, who really were important models for the work I would do. All of them, however, have encouraged that work from the perspective of my curatorial vision, meaning they have all made it clear to me there would be no version of directorial perspective that was not informed by my perspective as a curator.

Pissarro: I’m looking at the show, Circa 1970.

Golden: The collection exhibition that Lauren Haynes organized.

Pissarro: I heard a talk by Darby English last year, one of the best talks that I have ever listened to, ever, focusing on this particular moment, rich in contradictions. You can look at it through a pessimistic way or an optimistic way. He was making a parallel between the ominous [Thomas] Hoving show at the Met, Harlem on My Mind, and a show that very few people remember at the Whitney—

Golden: Black Art in America, in 1970.

Pissarro: —and showing the number of black artists following the trajectory of Abstract Expressionism. It was fascinating to see the two put side-by-side, thinking in terms of reception, in terms of history: how one is completely left aside and the other one has taken on its own historical and economic identity. I’m very curious, since you’ve been engaged in this historical world, this being such a sea change: how do you see that swing moment of the early 1970s in terms of recognition, opening up the gates of identities and complexities—

Golden: Well, it’s the moment of our founding; we were deeply involved in that moment. Critical work about this period was done in a recent book by Susan Cahan, who’s at Yale, called Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power. One chapter is on the Met exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, another chapter on the Whitney exhibition, and one on the founding of the Studio Museum. This was all of the same moment. Those exhibitions tried to position a certain aesthetic or intellectual framework for the work made by black artists, and, in the case of Harlem on My Mind, work that was about the “culture.”

The Studio Museum began with a mandate that allowed for a deep understanding of the multiplicity of these forms. This institution opened itself and allowed for what it meant to see black artists through the breadth and depth of their work. Circa 1970, which features work from our collection, really shows that. It’s an object lesson in that moment which historically is understood though the ideological battles about the validity of abstraction, the authenticity of representation, or any number of arguments. Actually, everything was happening at the same time and many artists were in conversation with each other in ways that were really profound. For us, this particular exhibition is really about creating the frame for these various art histories as they have been—or continue to be—written. The space of production of black art provides us with so much to understand about this moment.

Carrier: The great challenge is on the one hand to allow for people’s identities, but on the other hand to not fall into some kind of essentialism.

Golden: That’s not a challenge for us. That’s what the beauty is. The gift of cultural specificity understood and read about so narrowly by others is that all those arguments are not ones I have. We are a museum of artists of African descent. All of these issues surrounding identity politics, for example, are not as germane when the context itself allows for the idea. This is an institution that can equally embrace Conceptual art, as it can art by self-taught artists; it can look across the century. Our collection begins in the 19th century. Those are other people’s issues that they contend with. The beauty of this space is that perhaps by not contending with those issues—by not making them our issue—is actually how we get to do some really great work.

Pissarro: What occurs to me is a conversation I’ve had several times with a trustee at MoMA, who is passionately engaged with Latin American art, the full spectrum. She has what she calls a museum without walls, a collection of six or seven thousand works, entirely dedicated to Latin America, north and south. So, she lends to every exhibition worldwide. What she absolutely hates, what you are talking about, is essentialism or what she calls pigeonholing.

Golden: Totally. Totally.

Pissarro: And she loves to see Latin American art in conversation with Asian art—

Golden: With everything! We love that it can operate in these two ways. There’s the way in which it can be in the larger conversation but also in conversation with itself, where it is allowed a deep level of complexity. Core to our mission is that possibility.

Pissarro: I had Adrian Piper come to lecture, before she moved to Germany during the George W. Bush administration, when she decided that “this is enough, I can’t take this.” I wonder what she’d say about Trump…

Golden: She’s not coming back. I felt it from years ago, that there’s no way she’s coming back. [Laughter.]

Pissarro: She’s a Kantian philosopher. She talks about this as the little innocent germ of prejudice. What’s the different between expectation and prejudice?

Golden: Our work is to push back at that. This incredible production we do here, of fourteen to nineteen projects a year, it’s about that. That creates the opportunity to say that “it is all of these things.” And that is the specific work of a museum, done through our exhibitions, our collection, the ways in which we interpret those works, through our education programs. All of that is thought through on lots of levels, to provide the possibility for new languages, new space, and a wider sensibility of the space of art, really.

We were founded in a moment in the sixties when lots of organizations and institutions in the visual arts and performing arts were created to present the work of various communities. Cultural specificity had a real impact and import in that moment. The demise of many of those institutions had less to do with the validity of what they were presenting or showing, and more to do with what we know are the shifts within the cultural sector, about what it means to be an institution and the stability that that takes. What I think we understand now, as a country at the brink of being majority people of color, is that cultural specificity isn’t simply about the specific. It is about the culture at large. At one level we see ourselves, the Studio Museum, very much as a product of the moment we were founded. Very much a part of that late ’60s moment—the culture moment of that—of alternative museums—but also the political moment, the movement of resistance.

I do believe we are at a place where we can provide a model for what it means to be this kind of institution and through what we are doing now. We just embarked on a large expansion, creating what will be a more permanent home for ourselves, a custom-built museum designed by Adjaye Associates with Cooper Robertson that will grow on this site. What we hope is that it is not only a home for us, as a fifty-year-old museum doing this work, but an example of this possibility of a kind of radical reimagining of the institutional space generally, that allows for more—people, groups, communities, media—to have homes, to have spaces. And to be able to live in them with authority and sustainability.

Carrier: How does your role play to changes within other institutions, for them to be more self-consciously inclusive?

Golden: It’s always so interesting to me—you can have the same question but when you add race to it, it makes it feel as if it’s a more pertinent question. It will never be a question to anyone if any museum involved in modernism would show Jackson Pollock—there would never be a card out that says, MoMA does it, no one else gets to do it. But yet I’m asked all the time, “What does it mean that Kerry James Marshall is showing at the Met?” What it means is that he is an important artist and we all understand and believe that. What it means in terms of institutions—an example I give to people when it gets too complicated to understand what we are because of race, because of the important history of race in this country, is that we are an institution similar to Dia: we go deep where others perhaps are wide. We believe deeply in the importance of black artists being shown to everyone, and one of the great pillars of our work here is that we operate in a space of advocacy, very actively. Meaning that I am actively involved in the idea that this should happen in all those places. We promote it deeply and believe that it is for the good of us all. I am often asked, “You were founded because black artists were not shown in those museums, now that they are, are you irrelevant?” And the answer is no.

Carrier: To put it perversely, it would be a utopian vision indeed if you became irrelevant, in some deep sense.

Golden: The problem is that it’s not utopia—irrelevance would not be utopian. The utopia is that we name any of these artists and say their work could live and should live in any appropriate spectrum of places that makes sense. I’m so eager to make sure that we claim the history that’s already been written.

A lot of what we do is no different from what everyone else [within museums] does. And where it is different it’s really about institutional formations. It used to be, if you were a small museum, that your growth pattern was that you were trying to get bigger—you were trying to become a version of the Met, of MoMA. I think we are getting to is a different paradigm that no longer privileges the idea of authority only being in those large, old, big institutions. There are now different spaces of authority. The Studio Museum has proven to be authoritative in the museum and art world around emerging artists. That’s what we are.

We show artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally. It’s a short sentence but it took a long time to get to, because it was meant to acknowledge the beauty and complexity of the current global black experience. Our mission allows us to acknowledge that we show artists living and working everywhere, understanding their relationship to Africa through various historical narratives. Within those different historical narratives, we understand the African-American experience as being formative for this institution.

We’ve done some shows over the years that have all begun with “F,” they’re emerging artist shows—the first was Freestyle, the second was Frequency, the third was Flow, and the fourth was Fore. They all have taken on twenty to thirty emerging artists together in a show. They’re not biennials because we don’t do them every two years, but if we did, that’s what they’d be. The third one, Flow, traced artists of African descent primarily living and working elsewhere—but they either were born on the African continent or had parents who were born there. Our graphic designer made a map showing the birthplace, parental birthplace, living and working locations at the time, which really allows us to understand this idea of a global black presence. Our mission was written to open this space and give us the space to really redefine the context. We use the term “black” here, which is not a term that is used always and everywhere anymore. It is a way to equalize all these experiences in one word. It wasn’t just being linguistically lazy; it creates solidarity, of ability to see each other in one context. Years ago Isaac Julien was coming up here to see me, he took the 1 train instead of the 2, 3 and was totally discombobulated so he asked a couple of people, “Do you know where the Studio Museum is?” in his beautiful British accent, and they had no idea what he was talking about. He asked one guy who answered, “No—oh, you mean the Black Museum? Between Lenox and 7th Avenue—go this way.”

I hold that in my heart—“the Black Museum”—I embrace that. It goes back to the flag, it’s as simple as that, with a lot of people in the neighborhood, that is how they understand who we are. If I ask people, “Where’s the museum—you know, the flag?” they immediately recognize it, because the flag symbolizes not just location but this ideological alignment with culture.

Carrier: What I prepared for today, in my academic mode, in the past couple of weeks—I had you all balkanized, all in pieces, because I read various catalogues with you and various artists, and I always saw you in relation to each one them. And now I’m getting a synthesis that I don’t find in other accounts.

Golden: My work is really about creating space. I always thought of exhibitions as creating space—aesthetic space, intellectual space, public space. Now being a director of the museum that is writ large, quite literally: we’re building a building. But also, another thing that’s been important to me as a museum director is to live in the world of museum directors. My examples are amazing—Marcia Tucker, Susana Torruella Leval, Vishakha Desai, David Ross, Kathy Halbreich, Alanna Heiss. These are people who deeply, deeply nurtured me. These are people who, responding to what they saw as my own personal mission, were always willing to help, nurture, propose, mentor, and that for me has been critical. Because I had that, I care deeply about being in the art and culture museum world as a museum director. But it’s equally important to be a museum director in the rest of the world. I spend as much time in other worlds as I do in the museum world. That feeds this idea of my vision of what a museum should be. Here in Harlem, when I am invited into the educational and social service community of this neighborhood, I’m not being invited there to talk about art—I’m being invited there to understand what the needs are of the community I work in, what the goals are, what the aspirations are, and then I’m being asked to find some purpose within that as a museum director. And that informs my work deeply.

Pissarro: I love your expression of creating space because it can be taken literally, physically, but also culturally in this multi-layered dimension. Are you not the first institution to create a free-standing museum of its own dedicated to artists of African descent or cultural minorities?

Golden: There are other institutions that existed historically that don’t exist anymore, and others that have come more recently. We live within the context of a lot of history that came before us. So much of the history of black artists, black institutions, black art histories are not documented as well as they should be, so they’re unknown, they’re invisible to others. For example, all of the historically black colleges had museums. So I’m coming out of a tradition where, those educational institutions, which were created out of segregation, had museums. Within those schools there were art historians, who were writing art history, curators… I think we live in a moment where so much more is known. But I’m always careful to make clear to people that I live within a context of several generations of people before me who did important, significant work. Some of it is becoming more known because there are many of us in the field now who feel committed to just speak those names all the time—to understand that the work that we do comes from the work that they did. That’s what Baldwin gave me—that’s how cultural memory and transmission happens.

Carrier: I am struck by your essential optimism here, I like that very much.

Golden: Well, look, it’s an optimism that comes out of the fact that I have worked very hard in this field, and with everything that I can consider an achievement right now, I understood what it took to happen. Not just my effort, but the efforts of others. I see myself as an agent of change. The beauty of being an institutional leader is that it’s not about my work, it’s the opportunity to bring a lot of work forward. That’s also why I’m optimistic. Because I have the possibility within this institution to create space for others who are doing the important work. I am optimistic because there is a lot of possibility. I remain, however, constantly aware of the ways in which change is still necessary. I understand how sometimes that change will not be given, it must be taken. I am aware of the fact that we are in the space of art itself, where the demands of art are greater, and so we have to create a different way to make that possible for artists. My optimism is bound by a sort of practicality of doing the work.

Pissarro: Within the context of fundraising, if it’s not too indiscreet, what do you offer that other institutions are not offering? What distinguishes you?

Golden: What distinguishes us is our past, the opportunity to understand this museum as fundamentally changing the art and museum world through the opening of a lot of space for black artists. What distinguishes us is our presence—the ability at our scale and size to have a huge impact on the art and culture world, huge impact on audiences, huge impact on the lives of artists and the possibility for a future; to imagine that in a city that continues to transform, that we can understand that a community like Harlem, an important community—a bedrock in this city—can have a cultural institution that is an anchor in a way that many people in this city, in this country understand as important to our collective well-being as we move ahead.

We stand in solidarity with all of our peers who are trying to do important culturally-specific work in their communities. There are lots of different efforts. What we really have to talk about is sustainability, and some of the work that I do as a cultural leader is try to understand what makes that possible. This is an important moment for me because I had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—a brilliantly designed building that contains, in a deep museological way, my story and all of our stories. All of the things I’ve been taught, as to who I am and why I am, who came before me, that were made both intellectually rigorous and emotional affecting. It brought home this idea that I’ve always known—I’ve grown up in museums. I was a high school intern at the Met from ninth grade to twelfth grade. I had the occasion last year to go to the Met and talk to their interns, and as a fifty-year-old, I said to these fifteen-year-olds: “I was you.” My goal is not to make more curators—while I’d love to, what that experience gave me was a much bigger world than the one I lived in. That’s what gave the fifteen-year-old me the idea to say in my college application that I didn’t just want to become a curator; I wanted to be a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

When I talk about what I am now, it is who I am based on what’s been made possible for me. That’s the space I try to create. What can I make possible for others, for a generation of curators and museum directors who begin to look at this field and its different models, and perhaps see an institutional model, a leadership model, that resonates, that can authentically create for them the opportunity to do good, important work. To serve institutions, serve the audience, serve artists. Isn’t that what it is?

I was trained as an art historian during what’s now called “the culture wars,” but I was still raised within an art history that believed in a canon.


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.

The Directors is supported by Thomson Family Philanthropy

The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

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