Thelma Golden has led a long and celebrated career in the arts, from her pathbreaking work as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art to her public advocacy of art's role as a force for cultural change. Since 2005, Golden has been the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her leadership has strengthened the museum's reputation as "one of New York City's most consistently stimulating and innovative art institutions," in the words of Holland Cotter of The New York Times. Golden is currently guiding the Studio Museum through a substantial expansion that includes a new facility designed by Adjaye Associates and Cooper Robertson. Recently, Golden had a conversation with Sir David Adjaye and Theaster Gates about their work – including their collaboration on behalf of (RED).
THELMA GOLDEN: What drew you to this project? What inspired your involvement?
THEASTER GATES: There is an urgency to create better health options for black people around the world who are struggling with AIDS. And part of that urgency is because not everybody in the world cares. I've never known what I could do to help that besides trying to be mindful about my body and the bodies of my friends. But (RED) provides me this opportunity to be an ally for a cause that I really believe in.
SIR DAVID ADJAYE: When Theaster asked me to join him on this adventure, I became fascinated by the impact that AIDS has had on the continent. Even though the antiretroviral drugs are much, much cheaper than they used to be, they're still out of reach for a lot of families, and there's still a lot of work to be done toward eradicating this disease. So it felt like I could help to put a light on that conversation.
THELMA GOLDEN: The auction in 2008 focused on contemporary art, and the auction in 2013 focused on design. Can you talk about why you wanted to combine art and design for this year's auction?
TG: Well, part of it was that David and I have such cool friends that kind of cross over. There is a way in which art and design are so steeped in my life and in our lives, and our friends' lives. I'm also feeling more borderless these days. We need to seek allies across disciplines and across fields that can pick up causes together. So this became an opportunity where David and I, acting as kind of ambassadors or diplomats, could ask a wider body of participants to join us.
THELMA GOLDEN: David, how does the relationship between your architectural practice and this incredibly important social service and philanthropic work come together for you when you think about Africa?
SDA: I am working extensively in Africa. And one of the difficulties facing the continent is the huge disparity between the top and the bottom. This idea of working across all the agencies – commercial, governmental, philanthropic – is critical to the way I think. So when Theaster and (RED) came to me, it just felt like it was the first of a kind of engagement that I have already been rehearsing.
"There is an urgency to create better health options for black people around the world who are struggling with AIDS... RED provides me the opportunity to be an ally for a cause that I really believe in."
THELMA GOLDEN: Theaster, your work has been characterized by your ability to work across multiple genres and different spaces, which has reinvented definitions of art-making. Where does this auction fit within your practice?
TG: One of the things that I've come to understand over time is that change happens when the world can see that there's tremendous effort toward a cause, and that effort moves people to join the cause. And before you know it, a thing that was started by two people has 20, and then 20,000, and then 2 million. People could easily think that the AIDS virus is an '80s issue or a '90s issue or that it's resolved. What I find is that when you put energy in it, it helps people realize that there's still a very acute problem in other parts of the world. So the auction is an opportunity to create energy that then creates knowledge, which creates or continues a movement. Within my own practice, the renovation of my buildings in Chicago is only a small part of the influence that has happened in the world as a result of demonstrating that black people can impact black lives ourselves and that we don't have to wait for a government. We don't have to wait for an NGO. There are things that we can do to transform the world that we live in.
THELMA GOLDEN: I want you both to talk about your curatorial process – how you selected this incredibly rich and diverse group of participants for this auction.
TG: I think we were both sensitive to what would be a topic or an idea that could cover many kinds of practices and maybe even get our friends who are artists and designers to think differently about their own practice. And so light became our topic. We wanted to kind of play with this idea of light – the implications of it in both art and artistic practices. But for me, it was also about shining light on a subject or area that needed more understanding, that needed less stigma, that needed more dignity, that needed more information for the general public. The issue of AIDS needs light on it again and again....until it's over.
SDA: We very quickly aligned on this idea of light – light as a key motif in both of our work, but also light to illuminate the agenda of giving people access. Then we wanted to look at artists that, in different ways, seem to be operating within that medium. It felt like light was an umbrella that could actually deal with a lot of discourse, but also give a particular direction.
THELMA GOLDEN: What do you hope the impact of the auction will be?
SDA: I'm hoping that we reach another generation that maybe was not very present when (RED) was being discussed initially – a different audience who maybe has not been connected to the issues. We see ourselves being able to bring a different set of awareness. We're the first designers of color to host this, so I think that's a very important thing. And it really is talking about the idea that the (RED) agenda is a universal agenda, it's not just a specific narrative. We want to help bring a freshness to the story that might need a reboot.
TG: When you think about what happens when great artists and architects get together with great platforms, it means that more change can happen faster. And so I just feel humbled that David said yes and that these amazing platforms are around so that we can kind of get on with the work. It's easy to be critical of the art market when it feels like all we're up to is the kind of gentle passing of luxury goods. But the truth is the platform of the art market is a neutral platform. And we can use it to do any of the things that we want to do. It could be used for greed or it could be used for the redistribution of resources so that greater impact happens.
"I'm hoping that we reach another generation that maybe was not very present when (RED) was being discussed initially – a different audience that maybe has not been connected to the issues. "
THELMA GOLDEN: Both of you exist within a tradition of artists who understand their role as public intellectuals and engaged citizens. You have both defined a model of what that looks like a seamless existence between art and architectural practice and social change. You've shown that engaging in social and cultural change-making is not separate from art-making, but part of the process.
TG: To choose to be a painter and commit to that idea is already a complicated and noble task. But for those of us who feel political duty, social duty, I feel fortunate that there are moments when my art practice and my passion for people converge, though I wouldn't say that they're one thing. There are other times when my practice is only interested in formalistic things of art, and that is okay, too. I feel like I'm able to come to a cause with so much more vigor because I've had time in the shed being creative, just making my creative muscles stronger.
SDA: I think that great projects always have in them the ability to call people to action. They're not just things to be in awe of or just look at. They actually ask questions and cause change. If we do it right, the work has an effect in the world. You can be conscious about it or you can be self-conscious about it, but I think that's what great work does: it moves things on.
TG: There's a choice. What I love is that we have a choice and that this is an opportunity for us to be invested. We want to compel other people not out of obligation, but because they understand clearly the issues at hand and then make the choice to be generous, the choice to be present.