Audiences. Every performer needs one. Who is in yours? And whose are you in?
A case study: Thelma Golden, executive director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Golden, a Queens native, is one of the most respected curators in America. Before coming to the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2005, she spent 10 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art, co-curating the daring 1993 Whitney Biennial and her own groundbreaking 1994 exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”
She agreed to meet me for a lunch interview and I was elated.
We met at Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue and 125th. Chef-owner Marcus Samuelsson stopped by the table. I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of classical music. He replied, “I think of classical music like I think of high-end cooking…A lot of us are very good at cooking, at singing, but at the highest levels–when I showed up to my first job at a three-star Michelin restaurant, some of the other people there, they couldn’t even understand the concept of me [a Black man, an African] cooking there.” But a brilliant (and highly decorated) career ensued.
Golden, like Samuelsson, is operating at the top of her craft, directly impacting the cultural life in Harlem.
Also invited to lunch was my husband. He ate most of my cornbread! His name is Jason Moran and he is a stellar jazz pianist and the perfect companion for this outing: inquisitive and hungry.
Golden has never worked directly in classical music, but Richard Avedon gifted her a 4-by-6-foot image–on plexiglass–of contralto Marian Anderson in song (eyes closed, hair wild) that illuminated Madison Avenue from a grand light box outside the Whitney Museum.
Golden doesn’t perform, but she remembers her childhood piano teacher. “She was African-American. She was strict. She had a little metronome on the top of the piano going like this…!” said Golden, demonstrating with a spoon.
Golden witnessed great art growing up in New York.
“I must’ve seen Judith Jamison dance Alvin Ailey 100 times. The privilege of seeing her dance defined my notion of modern dance and lead me to understand choreography in ways that were not just about content and narrative, but also about form. What Ailey did for me was show how an artist uses his culture…It was the equivalent to classical dance to me.”
So what draws her to a classical event nowadays? “Something that resonates not just in the classical world but in the world generally,” she said. Work that “informs the conversation that one might have about everything else across genres.
“We all want a new generation to be invested and engage,” she said, pointing out that we are in an era where people curate their own consumption in ways that don’t necessarily need mediators like museums or concert halls. They are just on their computers, putting things together.
Taking this song from here, this image from there. I do believe that there’s a cultural canon: the one that exists in the past and the one that’s being made in the moment.”
For of-the-moment work, visit the Studio Museum on March 31 for an opening performance and conversation with artist Benjamin Patterson. His exhibition, “Born in the State of FLUX/us: Scores,” will remain open through June.
A composer trained in the classical tradition, Patterson works to invent sound via directed actions and movements that he ultimately arranges and draws into musical scores. The larger 1960s Fluxus Movement, of which Patterson was a founding member, celebrates the participation of the viewer. And if Patterson’s work, with its relativity to dance, classical music, literature and visual arts is any indication, then the museum, through this exhibition curated by Naomi Beckwith, is leading by example.
The artist will perform his work on March 31 at 7 p.m. at the Studio Museum in Harlem Theater. Admission is free.
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