Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, was awarded the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the Gish Prize Trust announced on Monday.
The annual prize is given to “a highly accomplished figure” who has “pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change, and paved the way for the next generation,” according to a statement by the Trust. The prize comes with a $250,000 cash award. (Last year’s winner was the choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of Urban Bush Women.)
Golden said in an interview that it was a “total surprise” when Sade Lythcott, the chief executive of the National Black Theater and chair of the selection committee, told Golden she had won. “I’m usually on the other side of this, someone who nominates artists for awards,” she said. “It feels very strange to be on the opposite side.”
Lythcott said the committee reviewed an “incredible list” of nominees before settling unanimously on Golden. “A lot of times folks see art administrators as the scaffolding by which art gets created, and every so often you find a person who transcends that scaffolding and in their work becomes the artist themselves,” she said, adding that Golden’s work is “essential to how artists create and make art.”
As chief curator of the Studio Museum, Golden has raised the museum’s national and international profile as well as its ambitions. And throughout her time as a curator, she has helped develop the careers of a number of artists, including Kehinde Wiley, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Jordan Casteel and Glenn Ligon.
“I’ve always seen myself as someone who is invested in what it means to create possibilities for artists,” Golden said.
As a child growing up in Queens, Golden knew by the time she was 16 that she wanted to become a museum curator. She interned at the Studio Museum in 1987, and returned in 2000, eventually becoming the director and chief curator in 2005. Since then, she has mounted a number of groundbreaking exhibitions, such as “Frequency” in 2005 and “Flow” in 2011, which showcased artists from the African diaspora.
“My work has been about expanding the space for artists broadly and artists of African descent, specifically,” Golden said.
“Receiving a prize like this allows one to dream and have ideas that might not have had a possibility,” Golden added. “That’s what this will allow me to do.”