Thelma Golden Joins Obama Foundation Board

Thelma Golden (right) and Michelle Obama during a tour of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Sept. 21, 2011. Photo: Chuck KennedyThe appointment of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to the board of directors of the Barack Obama Foundation is not a surprise. She was among three new board appointees announced by the Foundation on July 30, 2015. The connections leading up Golden's appointment have been developing for years.

The announcement of the new appointees follows the Foundation’s May 12, 2015 announcement that the majority-black-populated South Side of Chicago has been selected as the site of the Barack Obama Presidential Center.  The Center will house the library, museum and the Foundation’s offices and activity spaces.

Taken together, these two announcements increase the probability of long-standing rumors that the UK-based, internationally-practicing architect David Adjaye will be tapped to design the Obama Presidential Center. That would break with the tradition of U.S. architects designing the presidential iibraries which are the lasting physical legacies of U.S. presidents. 

As with Thelma Golden's appointment, the connections for such a design decision have been steadily developing.

In February 2012, Obama spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that is designed by David Adjaye in partnership with Philip Freelon and the Bond/SmithGroup. 

In March 2012, at the White House state dinner for British Prime Mininister David Cameron, David Adjaye was among the guests selected for seats at the main table with President Obama. 

Then there was Thelma Golden’s very high profile presence at the February 2014 White House state dinner for French President François Hollande. The seating arrangements for this state dinner were problematic because Hollande was attending by himself because of the recent break up with his long-time partner. The seat on one side of President Obama is assigned to the visiting head of state and the seat on the other side is usually given to the spouse of a visiting leader. When the spouse-reserved seat went Thelma Golden, a flurry of “Who’s That Lady?” commentary erupted in the media.

The momentum influencing propensity for architect selection for the Obama Presidential Center continued. On June 6, 2016, the Studio Museum in Harlem announced that David Adjaye will design its new $122 million building.

The Obama-Thelma Golden-David Adjaye relations are a part of a web that was strengthened by Michelle Obama’s two visits to the Studio Museum in Harlem as First Lady.  The major visit was the 2013 luncheon Michelle Obama hosted at the Studio Museum for spouses of delegates to the U.N’s Fall opening session. One of Michelle Obama’s favorite dress designers is Thelma Golden’s husband, Duro Oluwu, who like Adjaye, is based in London.    

The Obama/Golden/Adjaye connection extends in many directions including to persons such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Adjaye designed the renovation of a building to serve as the Cooper Gallery, a component of the Hutchins Center that Gates directs and Gates-Obama tete-a-tetes include the one at the August 2014 birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard for Vernon Jordan’s wife, Ann Jordan. The Gates-Golden nexus includes their collaborations on visual arts committees, conferences and publications — literally and metaphorically: golden gates to opportunities.

The multifaceted connections that link the Obamas, Thelma Golden and David Adjaye, and reinforce the influence of Golden and Adjaye, are like those white Americans and Europeans have long cultivated. Now black people in the U.S are making intra-racial, as well as interracial, connections at comparable levels of power and are facilitating trickle down effects to the mass level, such as the selection of South Side Chicago as the site of the Obama Presidential Center.

If the architect selected for the Obama Presidential Center is not Adjaye, it still may not be surprising selection.  Some (lesser) speculation for the design award logically centers on architects Phil Freelon and the renowned Renzo Piano whose credits include the Whitney Museum’s new building. If stunning orginality and local residence have any influence in the selection of the architect(s) for the presidential center, the winners in the Chicago Architectural Club's design competition should be given good consideration. The 2014 competition theme was the presidential center.

In accepting the appointment to the Obama Center board of directors, Thelma Golden focused on the Center's potential to boost communiy development. “The South Side of Chicago has historically been the nexus of several important cultural movements for African Americans, and I believe the new Center will help usher in a new era of community engagement for this extraordinary neighborhood," she said in the Center's July 30 announcement.

The homepage for the Obama Foundation shows Michelle and Barack Obama standing on a Lake Michigan shore, arm in arm, gazing towards the Chicago skyline. These words are superimposed on the scene: "Sweet Home Chicago." The initiated know where this phrase comes from: a blues song — one first attributed to Robert Johnson in 1937.

With the jobs, tourism dollars, prestige, public programs, community outreach activities and other benefits provided by the Obama Presidential Center, the people of South Side Chicago — many the descendants of migrants from the Mississippi delta and other impoverished Black Belt areas — will have a huge reason to sing that old blues song that’s no longer blue. Sweet Home Chicago!