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TED2009

Thelma Golden: How art gives shape to cultural change

February 10, 2009

Thelma Golden, curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, talks through three recent shows that explore how art examines and redefines culture. The "post-black" artists she works with are using their art to provoke a new dialogue about race and culture -- and about the meaning of art itself.

Thelma Golden - Curator
Opening minds and showcasing new voices -- it's all part of the job description for Studio Museum in Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden. Full bio

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The brilliant playwright, Adrienne Kennedy,
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wrote a volume called
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"People Who Led to My Plays."
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And if I were to write a volume,
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it would be called,
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"Artists Who Have Led My Exhibitions"
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because my work,
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in understanding art and in understanding culture,
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has come by following artists,
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by looking at what artists mean
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and what they do and who they are.
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J.J. from "Good Times,"
00:43
(Applause)
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significant to many people of course
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because of "Dy-no-mite,"
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but perhaps more significant
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as the first, really, black artist
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on primetime TV.
00:57
Jean-Michel Basquiat,
01:00
important to me because [he was]
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the first black artist in real time
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that showed me the possibility of
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who and what I was about to enter into.
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My overall project is about art --
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specifically, about black artists --
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very generally
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about the way in which art
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can change the way we think
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about culture and ourselves.
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My interest is in artists
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who understand and rewrite history,
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who think about themselves
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within the narrative
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of the larger world of art,
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but who have created new places
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for us to see and understand.
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I'm showing two artists here, Glenn Ligon and Carol Walker,
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two of many who really form for me
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the essential questions that I wanted to bring
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as a curator to the world.
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I was interested in the idea
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of why and how
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I could create a new story,
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a new narrative in art history
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and a new narrative in the world.
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And to do this, I knew
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that I had to see the way in which artists work,
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understand the artist's studio
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as a laboratory,
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imagine, then,
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reinventing the museum as a think tank
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and looking at the exhibition
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as the ultimate white paper -- asking questions,
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providing the space
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to look and to think about answers.
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In 1994,
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when I was a curator at the Whitney Museum,
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I made an exhibition called Black Male.
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It looked at the intersection
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of race and gender
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in contemporary American art.
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It sought to express
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the ways in which art
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could provide a space for dialogue --
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complicated dialogue,
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dialogue with many, many points of entry --
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and how the museum could be the space
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for this contest of ideas.
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This exhibition included
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over 20 artists
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of various ages and races,
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but all looking at black masculinity
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from a very particular point of view.
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What was significant about this exhibition
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is the way in which
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it engaged me in my role
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as a curator, as a catalyst,
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for this dialogue.
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One of the things that happened
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very distinctly in the course of this exhibition
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is I was confronted with idea
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of how powerful images can be
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and people's understanding of themselves and each other.
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I'm showing you two works, one on the right by Leon Golub,
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one on the left by Robert Colescott.
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And in the course of the exhibition --
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which was contentious, controversial
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and ultimately, for me,
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life-changing
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in my sense of what art could be --
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a woman came up to me on the gallery floor
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to express her concern about the nature
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of how powerful images could be
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and how we understood each other.
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And she pointed to the work on the left
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to tell me how problematic this image was,
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as it related, for her, to the idea of
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how black people had been represented.
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And she pointed to the image on the right
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as an example, to me, of the kind of dignity
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that needed to be portrayed
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to work against those images in the media.
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She then assigned these works racial identities,
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basically saying to me that the work on the right,
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clearly, was made by a black artist,
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the work on the left, clearly, by a white artist,
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when, in effect,
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that was the opposite case:
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Bob Colescott, African-American artist;
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Leon Golub, a white artist.
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The point of that for me was
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to say -- in that space, in that moment --
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that I really, more than anything,
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wanted to understand
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how images could work, how images did work,
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and how artists provided
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a space bigger than one
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that we could imagine in our day-to-day lives
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to work through these images.
04:55
Fast-forward and I end up in Harlem;
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home for many of black America,
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very much the psychic heart
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of the black experience,
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really the place where the Harlem Renaissance existed.
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Harlem now, sort of explaining
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and thinking of itself in this part of the century,
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looking both backwards and forwards ...
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I always say Harlem is an interesting community
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because, unlike many other places,
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it thinks of itself in the past, present
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and the future simultaneously;
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no one speaks of it just in the now.
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It's always what it was and what it can be.
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And, in thinking about that,
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then my second project, the second question I ask is:
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Can a museum
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be a catalyst in a community?
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Can a museum house artists
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and allow them to be change agents
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as communities rethink themselves?
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This is Harlem, actually, on January 20th,
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thinking about itself in a very wonderful way.
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So I work now at The Studio Museum in Harlem,
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thinking about exhibitions there,
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thinking about what it means to
06:00
discover art's possibility.
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Now, what does this mean to some of you?
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In some cases, I know that many of you
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are involved in cross-cultural dialogues,
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you're involved in ideas of creativity and innovation.
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Think about the place that artists can play in that --
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that is the kind of incubation and advocacy
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that I work towards, in working with young, black artists.
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Think about artists, not as content providers,
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though they can be brilliant at that,
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but, again, as real catalysts.
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The Studio Museum was founded in the late 60s.
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And I bring this up because it's important to locate
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this practice in history.
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To look at 1968,
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in the incredible historic moment that it is,
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and think of the arc that has happened since then,
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to think of the possibilities that we are all
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privileged to stand in today
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and imagine that this museum
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that came out of a moment of great protest
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and one that was so much about
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examining the history and the legacy
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of important African-American artists
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to the history of art in this country
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like Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis,
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Romare Bearden.
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And then, of course,
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to bring us to today.
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In 1975, Muhammad Ali
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gave a lecture at Harvard University.
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After his lecture, a student got up and said to him,
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"Give us a poem."
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And Mohammed Ali said, "Me, we."
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A profound statement about the individual and the community.
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The space in which now,
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in my project of discovery, of thinking about artists,
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of trying to define
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what might be
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black art cultural movement of the 21st century.
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What that might mean
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for cultural movements all over this moment,
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the "me, we" seems
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incredibly prescient
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totally important.
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To this end,
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the specific project that has made this possible for me
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is a series of exhibitions,
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all titled with an F --
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Freestyle, Frequency and Flow --
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which have set out to discover
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and define
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the young, black artists working in this moment
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who I feel strongly
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will continue to work over the next many years.
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This series of exhibitions
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was made specifically
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to try and question
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the idea of what it would mean
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now, at this point in history,
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to see art as a catalyst;
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what it means now, at this point in history,
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as we define and redefine culture,
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black culture specifically in my case,
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but culture generally.
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I named this group of artists
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around an idea, which I put out there
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called post-black,
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really meant to define them
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as artists who came and start their work now,
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looking back at history but start in this moment, historically.
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It is really in this sense of discovery
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that I have a new set of questions that I'm asking.
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This new set of questions is:
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What does it mean, right now,
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to be African-American in America?
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What can artwork say about this?
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Where can a museum exist
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as the place for us all
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to have this conversation?
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Really, most exciting about this
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is thinking about the energy and the excitement
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that young artists can bring.
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Their works for me are about,
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not always just simply
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about the aesthetic innovation
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that their minds imagine, that their visions create
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and put out there in the world,
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but more, perhaps, importantly,
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through the excitement of the community
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that they create as important voices
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that would allow us right now to understand our situation,
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as well as in the future.
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I am continually amazed
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by the way in which
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the subject of race
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can take itself in many places
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that we don't imagine it should be.
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I am always amazed
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by the way in which artists are willing
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to do that in their work.
10:01
It is why I look to art.
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It's why I ask questions of art.
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It is why I make exhibitions.
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Now, this exhibition, as I said,
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40 young artists done over the course of eight years,
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and for me it's about considering the implications.
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It's considering the implications of
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what this generation has to say to the rest of us.
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It's considering what it means for these artists
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to be both out in the world as their work travels,
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but in their communities
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as people who are seeing and thinking
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about the issues that face us.
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It's also about thinking about
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the creative spirit and nurturing it,
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and imagining, particularly in urban America,
10:41
about the nurturing of the spirit.
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Now, where, perhaps, does this end up right now?
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For me, it is about re-imagining
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this cultural discourse in an international context.
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So the last iteration of this project
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has been called Flow,
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with the idea now of creating
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a real network
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of artists around the world;
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really looking, not so much
11:06
from Harlem and out, but looking across,
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and Flow looked at artists all born on the continent of Africa.
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And as many of us think about that continent
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and think about what if means
11:17
to us all in the 21st century,
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I have begun that looking
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through artists, through artworks,
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and imagining what they can tell us about the future,
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what they tell us about our future,
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and what they create in their sense of
11:31
offering us this great possibility of watching
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that continent emerge as part
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of our bigger dialogue.
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So, what do I discover
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when I look at artworks?
11:43
What do I think about
11:45
when I think about art?
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I feel like the privilege I've had as a curator
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is not just the discovery of new works,
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the discovery of exciting works.
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But, really, it has been
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what I've discovered about myself
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and what I can offer
12:00
in the space of an exhibition,
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to talk about beauty, to talk about power,
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to talk about ourselves,
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and to talk and speak to each other.
12:09
That's what makes me get up every day
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and want to think about
12:15
this generation of black artists and artists around the world.
12:17
Thank you. (Applause)
12:20

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Thelma Golden - Curator
Opening minds and showcasing new voices -- it's all part of the job description for Studio Museum in Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden.

Why you should listen

Culling an interest in art history from a childhood board game, Thelma Golden knew her dream job even before she knew what to call it. She stumbled upon the title and role she was looking for -- curator -- at the age of 12, and started up the ladder early, landing at the Whitney Museum in 1988, just one year after college. She was a co-curator of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a controversial landmark show that showcased overtly political art made by a significant percentage of nonwhite nonmales and paved the way for topics of race, gender and identity to be discussed institutionally.

Golden first burst into the limelight as a solo curator with "The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art" at the Whitney in 1994. Brilliantly imagined and carefully envisioned (and provoking controversy from a few corners), the show cemented her reputation as a formidable and fearless curator. In 2005, Golden became director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, re-dedicating the institution to forward-facing art from all corners of the African Diaspora. She keeps an eye on young and developing artists, while using the Studio Museum to write the history of collecting and art-making in Harlem and around the world.

The original video is available on TED.com
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