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Thelma Golden

“Curating is an active verb,” says Thelma Golden ’87, director and chief curator for the Studio Museum in Harlem. It’s not just about the presentation of new works, she explains, “but what I can offer in the space of an exhibition—to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves, and to talk and speak to each other.”

For more than 25 years, Golden has been celebrating the power of art by transforming museums into spaces for what she calls “the contest of ideas,” where dialogue and debate are just as important as what hangs on the walls.

A double major in art history and Afro-American studies at Smith, Golden began her career at the Whitney Museum, where she made a name for herself with the provocative 1994 exhibit “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art.” The show upended cultural stereotypes and introduced Golden as a formidable figure in the art world.

Golden joined the Studio Museum in 2000, becoming director and chief curator in 2005. In her tenure, the museum has thrived as a community hub and a global nexus for artists of African descent and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture.

Her career, she says, has been based on a simple idea: to show how art can change the way we think about culture and ourselves. “My interest,” she says, “is in artists who understand and rewrite history, who have created new places for us to see and understand.”

A Smith College medalist (1997) and honorary degree recipient (2004), Golden has maintained a close relationship with the college, teaching interterm courses on campus and hosting students at the Studio Museum.

“I know that by living in the world as a Smith alum, I represent a profound and radical symbol of the power of educating women,” she told graduating seniors at the Ivy Day celebration last year. “Welcome to this great, glorious legacy.”