Robert Goldwater (November 23, 1907 – March 26, 1973) was an art historian, African arts scholar and the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, from 1957 to 1973. He was married to the French-born American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois.
Born in New York City, Goldwater received his BA in 1929 from Columbia University, and his MA from Harvard in 1931. Goldwater was one of the early art history students to study modern art at a time when the subject was not considered worthy of serious graduate research. Goldwater was one of the participants of the informal gatherings of art scholars organized by Meyer Schapiro (c.1935) that included Lewis Mumford, Alfred Barr and Erwin Panofsky. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1937 at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts under Richard Offner, on "primitivism" and Modern art. This would become the subject of his life's major works. The following year, a revised version of his dissertation appeared as the book Primitivism in Modern Painting, a pioneering work that examines the relationship between tribal arts and 20th-century painting. In 1937, he married the French artist Louise Bourgeois who was to go on to become a world-renowned sculptor. In 1939, he accepted an appointment at Queens College, and taught art history there until 1956. In 1949, he co-curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art with Director Rene d'Harnoncourt entitled Modern Art in Your Life. In 1957 he returned to New York University as full professor of art history, and the same year became the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art, founded by Nelson A. Rockefeller and derived in part from Rockefeller's personal collection. Goldwater organized the first exhibition of African art by a New York museum, which opened in 1957 in a town house on West 54th Street.
In 1969, Nelson Rockefeller offered the entire Museum of Primitive Art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which established a curatorial department for the care, study and exhibition of the works. A new wing was proposed, to be named in honor of Rockefeller's son Michael who disappeared in 1961 during an expedition in New Guinea with Dutch anthropologist René Wassing. Goldwater served as Consultative Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Primitive Art from 1971 until his death. The wing, which contains both the Metropolitan Museum's existing holdings with those of the Primitive Museum's former holdings, opened to the public in January 1982. The departmental library was renamed the Robert Goldwater Library in Goldwater's memory.