Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says she was drawn to art at a very young age. (Julie Skarratt)

Thelma Golden used to be mistaken for her own assistant. But these days, there aren’t many in the art world who don’t know the 50-year-old director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Twenty-five years ago, before her closets were written up in O magazine and her 2008 wedding featured in Vogue, Golden was a young curator at the Whitney Museum — its first black curator, actually. Her looks didn’t match people’s assumptions about who got to be a mover and a shaker in the world of art. But Golden, who has a knack for turning setbacks into ambition, now calls those early cases of mistaken identity “liberating.”

“It allowed me the opportunity to not only create a deep impression,” she says, “but also was a way that I personally made goals that moved me toward being known and being understood.”

Golden is quite small, with close-cropped hair and an earnest face. Today, in her office at Studio, she’s wearing a bold print dress created by her fashion designer husband, Duro Olowu. There’s no mistaking her for anyone else.

Increasingly, Golden is becoming known beyond the realm of curation. Last year, she was seated next to President Obama at a White House state dinner, leading a flurry of people to ask, “Who was that woman?” Let culture critic Greg Tate, profiling Golden in the Village Voice years ago, answer it: “A stone-cold player. A highbrow mack-diva of the first magnitude.”

Thelma Golden at the Museum Of Modern Art's 2015 Party In The Garden in New York City. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

In the summer, she was appointed to the board of directors of the Barack Obama Foundation, which will erect his presidential library on Chicago’s South Side, leading one critic to speculate — Golden is this revered — that she might be “too good” for the job. Shortly before that, Studio announced that it would soon be starting construction on a bigger, $122 million home, yielding stories about the growing importance of the museum and its charismatic director.

Collaborative curation

Throughout her career, Golden has proved adept at putting together shows about race and identity politics that are deeply controversial at the time but years later, look prescient. Studio was founded almost 50 years ago as a showcase for important black artists who had been left out of the official (read: white) canon, and Golden’s relationship with the museum stretches back to her days as a college intern there, plus a year after college before she joined the Whitney. When Golden returned in 2000 as Studio’s deputy director, art critics knew the institution as sleepy and genteel; she helped to boldly reshape it. Her first major contemporary exhibition, “Freestyle,” announced the dawn of the “post-black” era — a movement of artists who no longer wanted to be explained or contained by the label “black,” even as they were steeped in racial consciousness. The New Yorker pronounced the museum “post-Golden.” In 2005, Golden became its director.

Golden has cultivated deeply personal relationships with many of the artists she has championed, becoming so close with one that she witnessed the birth of her child.

“As a curator, I’ve always understood my curatorial practice as being highly collaborative with artists,” says Golden, whose run-on sentences sometimes have a Zen quality. “There’s a story for each of them. I know exactly when I first saw the work, or came to understand how I understood the work — or how maybe I didn’t understand the work and that’s what moved me into a conversation with them.”

Now, a decade into helming Studio, Golden is no longer directly curating shows. Instead, she is in what she calls the “institution-building” phase of her career. She lives a few blocks from the museum, and has constructed a travel-heavy, cross-continent marriage with her Nigerian-born, London-based husband. She’s charismatic, but seems guarded compared with her persona in older interviews, in which she brimmed with audaciousness — perhaps because she’s mellowed or because of the heat she has felt in her career for being a first.

In the early 1990s, about the time Golden was being mistaken for her assistant, conservative art critic Hilton Kramer called her undereducated and dismissed her career as a vehicle for political correctness. In the early 2000s, when she was the subject of a New Yorker profile that described her hobnobbing with Bill Clinton and a wealthy collector, she was derided by a wholly different camp for being a sellout. Golden was stunned by the criticism. But she has nurtured the same absorbing passion since she was a child, and has proven herself not easily thrown off course.

An early love of the arts

Golden grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Queens, one of two children, with parents who nurtured her love of art and sent her to private school on Long Island. By the time she was 10, she was reading the New York Times every morning, with a particular interest in the arts pages. Golden has said that for her, looking at art is a full-body affair, akin to how some people experience action films. “I am someone who is totally experiential,” she says. As a girl, in what would become what she calls the “leitmotif” of her life, Golden arranged and rearranged tiny art reproductions — postcards she’d gotten at the Museum of Modern Art, cards she’d pulled from an art-collecting board game called Masterpiece — on her bedroom walls.

Golden happens to have a copy of that old board game in her office, and when the topic comes up, she climbs on a chair and digs it off a high shelf. Masterpiece hasn’t been produced in decades, but this past summer, to celebrate Golden’s 10 years as Studio’s director, her staff scoured eBay and gave it to her, knowing the role it played in shaping a little girl’s future. The cover features a 1970s vision of art-world mover-shakers — a collection of rich white people at an auction, wearing ascots and furs.

“This is what completely and totally moved me,” Golden says, pulling out the art cards. “This is ‘Nighthawks,’ Edward Hopper.” She holds up another. “This is a gorgeous Toulouse-Lautrec. . . . I remember so much spending these years looking at these images.”

During high school, Golden attended a private school within walking distance of the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Frick and the Cooper Hewitt. Every day after classes, she crafted her own private tours. She interned at the Met, where, she says, walking past all of those great artworks while delivering memos affected her “on a cellular level. . . . It’s what made me know that what I was doing as a high school intern — I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.”

The amazing thing about Golden is her laser focus, how her singular ambition made the heroes of her childhood into her contemporaries. Curator Lowery Stokes Sims, whom she idolized as a teenager, became her boss and mentor. In a college literature seminar, she swapped stories with James Baldwin about her father’s Harlem, without imagining that one day she would be a key part of the neighborhood’s cultural life. It’s enough to make you think that sufficient quantities of talent and drive can forge a reasonable facsimile of fate.

In Golden’s office, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are stacked with brightly colored art books, catalogues, magazines and a Barbie doll extravagantly styled by fashion designer Byron Lars. Two apples sit beside her computer, along with a bobblehead of conceptual artist Dave McKenzie, which Golden refers to as “Little Dave.” The art in her office changes periodically — now it features, among other things, a crude and strangely captivating portrait of Michelle Obama as a bird, wearing pearls and clutching a fish in one talon.

There’s also a self-portrait by conceptual artist and close friend Glenn Ligon that’s never taken down. It symbolizes what Golden calls “an over-20-year constant conversation about art and art-making and the meaning of art in the context of life” with an artist who has influenced her as a curator perhaps more than any other. It was Ligon and Golden who cooked up the concept of “post-black.” They speak daily and seem to share a brain. Back in the day, Ligon would communicate with Golden post-verbally by faxing her wordless notes featuring what she calls little “pre-emoji” drawings.

Museum as think tank

In a Ted Talk in 2009, Golden posited the notion of the museum as think tank and the exhibition as the ultimate white paper. This idea that museums could forecast a wiser, more inclusive society was born of necessity.

She has said that when she double-majored in art history and African American studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., there was no mention of black art in either department. So she had to imagine her way to a future in which she could curate not just art, but also change. She made waves early on with “Black Male,” her 1994 Whitney show, which played with the myths and stereotypes of African American masculinity. That show provoked anger, again, from opposite camps — conservative critics who charged her with abandoning taste in favor of racialized politics, and African Americans who wanted more uplifting images of black men.

“What I learned from ‘Black Male’ is the important space that museums can create for a dialogue with and through art about the issues in our world,” Golden says. In the #BlackLivesMatter era, at a time of growing consciousness about how racial identities are constructed and maintained by newsrooms, politicians and police forces, that show feels prophetic.

By the time of “Black Male,” Golden had stopped reading reviews. She had made that decision the year before, after working on the ’93 Whitney Biennial, which was heavy on themes of race, class and gender, and which many reviewers dismissed as “self-indulgent self-expression” and “a mélange of social complaints.” (But, again, hindsight: New York recently pronounced that biennial “the moment in which today’s art world was born.”)

When Golden joined Studio, her comfort with uncomfortable conversations led her to mount “Black Romantic,” an exhibition of populist black art, meant to highlight a debate within the African American community over what art should be. She was upfront about the fact that some of this kind of art made her “skin crawl” — such as those paintings featuring “naked black women with these 38 DDDD breasts and 40-inch hips sitting on stools with stars and Africa coming between their legs,” she told one interviewer. But that was the point. She talked the concept over with Ligon, who thought that such an exhibition seemed “transgressive,” which was a good thing. “He knew, again, that these were questions that I had to ask,” Golden says.

At a recent opening for several exhibitions, Golden is the center of a whirlpool of people, resplendent in a fluttery print dress and boots with see-through heels, chatting with a tall man in a brown hat who turns out to be the comedian David Alan Grier. The crowd is young and beautiful and lively; this must be the most unstuffy think tank in the world.

Established and emerging artists are shown side by side, and one particular photo by newer artist Nona Faustine catches the eye. It’s a self-portrait. She stands completely naked on a wooden block in the middle of Wall Street, site of a former Colonial slave market. Cars zip by. It is the past brought into the present, the artist’s solemn gaze pinning you to the spot. Her vulnerability invites your sympathy, your embarrassment and maybe even your anger. It is startling and upsetting and — as with so much of the art Golden champions, this is the point — you can’t look away.