Thelma Golden Is Too Good for the Obama Museum

Thelma Golden
Thelma Golden Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Last week, while everyone was focused on the lead up to the embarrassing spectacle of the Fox News GOP debate, Christie Chu reported on ArtNet that Studio Museum in Harlem director and chief curator Thelma Golden was selected by President Obama for the board of the Barack Obama Foundation. In that position, she will oversee the planning for the Obama Presidential Center, the location of the future presidential library and museum, in the South Side of Chicago.

This is great news for the museum—Golden should be in charge of more things; she’s a fantastic arts administrator and curator and a brilliant cultural force in New York. For decades, she has organized numerous, insightful exhibitions about black life and identity from a variety of perspectives and with impressive sensitivity. My concern is that the Obama Presidential Center and the museum are unworthy of her. But who knows, maybe they’ll rise the occasion. I’m not holding my breath.

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I’ve always been suspicious of the concept of the presidential library and museum. I like museums generally more than the next guy, but this genre of museum invariably feels like naked, distasteful propaganda, unsubtly buoying the reputations of these former presidents, who range from deeply disappointing to full-blown psychopathic war criminals.

For example, in light of the devastation Ronald Reagan’s legacy has brought to, well, everything, I just can’t wrap my mind around wanting to go see the folksy, meant-to-be-charming (but as horrifying as it is charmless) jelly bean portrait of the late president. How adorable, how fun to remember that he loved jelly beans while he was supplying weapons to Iran and al Qaeda, crushing the American dream and ignoring AIDS! I hope they sell jelly beans in the gift shop!

The presidential libraries have a respectable mandate; the Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires the National Archives to collect and preserve official documents from every administration, and the individual libraries are where those collections are curated and housed.

Presidential museums, by contrast, are corrupt public relations confections masquerading (poorly) as legitimate historical and educational institutions. There is a $500M complex at Southern Methodist University in Dallas that celebrates, as a success, the legacy of George W. Bush. Q.E.D.

That $500M price tag is the key to the fundamental problem with these museums. In a better world, an outgoing president, with no more campaigns to run, would finally be able to stop fundraising and stop being beholden to donors looking to buy influence. This outright bribery is legal, of course, but I think we can all agree: unhelpful to good governance. With a presidential museum to build, though, the opportunity to keep receiving cash from people and institutions looking for “access” can continue on throughout a whole term and beyond.

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In addition to influencing the still-sitting president, first-wave donors to these museums have another kind of influence. According to the National Archives’ own presidential library and museum FAQ:

The Museum parts of the Libraries seem to be favorable to the former Presidents, as they often talk about the positive things the President did while in office. Why is that?


The composition of the first exhibits in the museums reflect the funding sources of those exhibits. … Another aspect of this partnership [between private presidential foundations and the National Archives] is that the exhibit themes are influenced by the organization(s) funding the exhibits.


While the funding source of an exhibit plays a role in its interpretative theme, it is also worth noting that the most recent Presidential Libraries have exhibits that feature contemporary issues and topics. The depiction of contemporary, or nearly contemporary, events in an exhibit comes with different challenges than the portrayal of events and personalities from a more distant time frame. Exhibits in the Presidential Libraries evolve as the themes transition from contemporary to historical. … Where the Truman exhibit can rightfully be lauded today for its balanced content, a more recent Library may well receive similar praise when that Library reaches the age of the Truman Library and reflects the perspective that only time and more historical research can provide.

That, then, is an implicit warning—straight from the National Archives—not to look for any kind of disinterested, fair-minded history at the Obama museum until around the 2070s, give or take. Until recently, the Nixon museum posited that Watergate was not that big a deal and also the Democrats’ fault and the Truman library kind of glossed over the freaking atomic bombs.

So, what can we expect from the Obama museum when it opens? Will there be exhibits about Guantanamo (still open!) or the NSA domestic spying? Will Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden be acknowledged? Will Jennicet Gutiérrez? Will “Black Lives Matter”? Will Obama’s record number of deportations?

Thelma Golden / via Photo by Patrick Mcmullan
Thelma Golden / via
Photo by Patrick Mcmullan

I’m actually optimistic about Black Lives Matter being addressed sensitively under Golden’s leadership. The exhibitions she has organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and at the Whitney Museum before that, have consistently demonstrated a sophistication about identity politics and a keen eye for smart, political, vital artwork. The Obama museum is not an art museum, but her experience will still be powerfully relevant. She understands and champions diversity and complexity as fundamental, essential parts of the work she does, both among the artists and the audience.

As exciting as it is that Golden has joined the board of the Obama Foundation, her colleagues inspire less hope. Also coming on last week were John Doerr, a venture capitalist and former member of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness—Obama: “Our job is to do everything we can to ensure that businesses can take root . . .”—and Julianna Smoot, a strategic advisor from both of Obama’s campaigns who helped him break fundraising records. So: these and most of the rest of the board are establishment business and money people; a fundraising circle that will exert influence on the exhibits in what I can only imagine will be a corporatist, regressive, Obama-can-do-no-wrong-regardless-of-evidence direction. (One other board member, Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s sister, comes from a non-profit, educational, refreshingly humanist background. I hope she and Golden stage a coup and take over the foundation!) Here is the current Obama Foundation donor information.

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If the Obama museum ultimately looks as if it will preserve the unimpressive status quo, there is no reason to think it will be any worse than other presidential museums—and there is hope Golden can take things in a positive direction. For example, whereas the staff of Southern Methodist University “fiercely protest[ed]” the impending George W. Bush library and museum, the Obama foundation claims community support:

The Foundation is humbled by the community’s enthusiasm and support for the Presidential Center. The Foundation has already engaged community leaders and looks forward to expanding the conversation.

I’m eager to see what Golden does with the Obama museum. The odds are stacked against her, but she’s smart and she’s formidable. And I’d like to live in a world where she can reform the model of the presidential museum institution. We’ll see.