THE 30TH ANNUAL Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize was awarded to Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
A transformational figure in the world of art, for more than 35 years, Golden has provided a platform for Black artists as a curator, museum leader, mentor, and advocate. The prize was announced Oct. 23 and includes a cash award of $250,000.
Each year, the Gish prize recognizes an individual who has “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
Recipients are active in an array of artistic disciplines from theater, literature, and music to architecture and visual art. Golden is the first curator and museum leader to win the prize since it was established in 1994.
“This year’s selection committee unanimously and enthusiastically presents the Gish Prize to Thelma Golden, a recognition well deserved for her profound contributions to the world of contemporary art and her unwavering commitment to fostering inclusivity and diversity within the art community,” National Black Theater Sade Lythcott, who chaired the five-person prize committee, said in a statement. “Thelma’s visionary leadership has ignited important dialogues and transformed institutions, inspiring artists and audiences alike.”
Golden was the first Black curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where she organized the pivotal exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in American Art” in 1994. She became deputy director of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2000, marking a return to the institution where she served as an intern in 1987. Since 2005, Golden has led the Studio Museum nurturing the careers of Black artists, as well as Black curators.
Beginning with “Freestyle” (2001) featuring Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Sanford Biggers, and Rashid Johnson, Golden launched a series of F-titled exhibitions showcasing the works of emerging artists who are now among the most highly regarded contemporary artists working today. During her tenure, the Studio Museum’s artist-in-residence program has also provided a foothold for rising artists, including Simone Leigh, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Adam Pendleton, Lauren Halsey, Jordan Casteel, Kevin Beasley, Meleko Mokgosi, Jennifer Packer, Titus Kaphar, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Kehinde Wiley.
Her influence extends far beyond the Studio Museum. Golden served on the International Jury for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale and sits on the boards of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. She is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, whose mission is to diversify art museum boards. After being appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House by President Barack Obama (2010-16), Golden now serves on the board of the Barack Obama Foundation.
While the new Studio Museum building is under construction, exhibition programming has continued. In 2019, Golden engaged in a multiyear partnership with the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, wherein the Studio Museum presents exhibitions at the venues dedicated to its artists in residence and figures such as Ming Smith, Michael Armitage, and Kahlil Robert Irving.
”Working in service of artists in general, and very specifically Black artists, has allowed me to engage broadly in the world.” — Thelma Golden
“As a curator and museum director who has been privileged to work for and on behalf of artists for my entire career, I am humbled to receive this prize that was created by an artist and has been given to so many creative leaders I greatly admire,” Golden said in a statement. ”Working in service of artists in general, and very specifically Black artists, has allowed me to engage broadly in the world. I gratefully accept the Gish Prize and wholly acknowledge what an honor it has been able to provide space, alongside the many institutional colleagues, Board members, and supporters who are equally committed to advancing the work these artists do.”
Frank Gehry received the first Gish Prize. Over the years, recipients have also included many other giants in their fields: Arthur Miller, Merce Cunningham, LLoyd Richards, Bill T. Jones, Ornette Coleman, Shirin Neshat, Robert Redford, Chinua Achebe, Anna Deavere Smith, Spike Lee, Maya Lin, and Suzan-Lori Parks.
Golden is the fifth Black person in a row honored with the prize, following Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, choreographer and founder of Urban Bush Women (2022); author and poet Sonia Sanchez (2021); film director Anna DuVernay (2020), and landscape architect Walter Hood (2019). CT
IMAGE: Thelma Golden. | Photo by Julie Skarratt, Courtesy Gish Prize Trust
“Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” accompanied the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition curated by Thelma Golden. “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem” features a conversation among Golden, curator Connie Choi, and art historian Kellie Jones. Golden has also authored and contributed to many more publications, including “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at The Frick,” “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces,” “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” “Gary Simmons: Public Enemy,” and Bob Thompson.
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