SIX WEEKS INTO HIS TENURE as director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Franklin Sirmans is adapting to his new role at the museum and new expectations for Art Basel Miami Beach.
Previously, as department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), he could duck in and out of exhibitions, fairs and parties, a visitor to Miami quickly navigating the citywide bonanza. This year, Sirmans is serving as a host and ambassador, a newly minted leader in Miami’s burgeoning arts community.
Named director of PAMM on Sept. 3, Sirmans officially joined the museum on Oct. 15. The announcement capped a significant period in his career. In June, Sirmans mounted “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” at LACMA. Currently on view, it is the first monographic museum exhibition of Purifoy, the late assemblage artist, social worker, and co-founder of the Watts Towers Arts Center.
Last fall, Sirmans presided over Prospect.3 in New Orleans where he served as artistic director. The American biennial (now triennial) allowed him to execute his curatorial vision on a large scale. Spread throughout the city, he says the three-month exhibition gave him a chance to work with dozens of artists who currently excite him and that the programming, fundraising, and community overtures it involved helped to prepare him for his appointment at PAMM.
I spoke to Sirmans over Thanksgiving weekend. He generously phoned while he was traveling from Washington, D.C., where he spent the holiday, back to Miami. Over the course of three abbreviated calls, he discussed his transition from writing to curating, Jean-Michel Basquiat, synergy with his new curatorial team, and his fondness for Miami and the opportunities it presents.
CULTURE TYPE: How did the PAMM appointment come about? Were you seeking a new opportunity or were you approached?
FRANKLIN SIRMANS: Last summer, there were a lot of positions open and there are only so many firms that work with the institutions on those searches. I was well aware of what searches were coming up and what was happening. From looking at that, it seemed to me to be an interesting time for change. You can see it in the hiring that they did in Brooklyn, Detroit and Atlanta. You can see it probably in my hiring in Miami. It’s a different moment for museum leadership in this country. So I was aware. It wasn’t that I was seeking out something, but I was certainly aware of the conversations.
“It’s a different moment for museum leadership in this country. So I was aware. It wasn’t that I was seeking out something, but I was certainly aware of the conversations.” — Franklin Sirmans
[In May, the Brooklyn Museum announced its new director is Anne Pasternak. The High Museum in Atlanta chose Randall Suffolk to serve as its new director in July. Salvador Salort-Pons was named director, president and CEO of the Detroit Institute of the Arts in September.]
You’ve worked in places where the location—Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans—is central to the identity and culture. How are you thinking about this position in terms of the place, being in Miami?
To me, it’s completely integral. Miami represents an incredible opportunity in that it is a city that is rapidly changing, rapidly growing. Its foundation is a world of museums that is very young so it presents an incredible opportunity in terms of defining how a museum functions and what a museum might be to a given community. I find that to be incredibly exhilaratingly interesting.
It is an interesting time in Miami, but also for museums in general as institutions try to figure out a 21st century model that prioritizes exhibitions, programming and education, but also is mindful of the need to draw in audiences and generate revenue.
In a broad sense, part of what a museum can be in this moment is much more than what it has been in the past. It can be more to more people, perhaps. With our focus on education, which is huge, we bring in almost 100,000 kids a year through the school system in Miami-Dade County. (Next to the school system in Miami-Dade, we are the biggest in terms of providing any sort of arts education to students.) Taking advantage of that positioning, taking advantage of the fact that education has become a much more important focal point of the museum, in general, and leading from that standpoint, not having 100 years of baggage of something else, that is our beginning.
That is where we come from. We come as much from being an education place as being an entertainment place. So we want to capitalize on that and also have the museum be a place for dialogue in a city where that could be a really instrumental part of its civic nature.
“We want to capitalize on [being an education place and an entertainment place] and also have the museum be a place for dialogue in a city where that could be a really instrumental part of its civic nature.”
— Franklin Sirmans
You have been a writer/editor, a curator, and now you are taking on a director role at a museum. What is your comfort zone and how will your diverse work background inform your leadership at PAMM?
I think about Charles Wright in New York at DIA. Michael Govan at DIA. Josef Helfenstein at the Menil Collection in Houston and Michael Govan, again, in L.A. at LACMA. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who represent what you just said, who come from a place where writing is important—the organization of ideas. A place where making exhibitions is important. A place where knowing how art work plays with any given space is important.
Being able to articulate what those things can mean in a broader picture for a given place and time is something that I’ve seen at work and something that I seek to emulate in my new role. I think all of those things are important as far as directing goes. We can use all of those things as assets in order to make a museum where people feel like they have a real stake.
NARI WARD, “Mango Tourist,” 2011 (foam, battery canisters, Sprague Electric Company resistors and capacitors, and mango seeds). In collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts | Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
Let’s talk about art. PAMM received a $1 million grant in September 2013 for African American art acquisitions. Has all of the money been spent? What was acquired and how much of a priority is African American art in terms of expanding PAMM’s collection?
Not all of it has been spent out. Some significant acquisitions have been made, people like Ed Clark, like Terry Adkins. Most recently, there is a Nari Ward work that is in our great traveling exhibition [“Nari Ward: Sun Splashed”] that we were able to acquire. And there are others. I don’t have everything in front of me right now, but there are others. There have been significant acquisitions. The fund comes half from the Knight Foundation and half from Jorge Perez. That was one way to inject the idea of wanting to support, all across the board, a different representation of Miami, one that is reflective of Miami.
“There have been significant acquisitions [of African American art]. The fund comes half from the Knight Foundation and half from Jorge Perez. That was one way to inject the idea of wanting to support, all across the board, a different representation of Miami, one that is reflective of Miami.” — Franklin Sirmans
[PAMM purchased “Homeland Sweet Homeland,” 2012 by Nari Ward in June 2015 with funds provided by Jorge M. Pérez, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the PAMM Ambassadors for African American Art.]
In discussing the collection in previous interviews, you have mentioned a focus on Latin American art.
The natural focus for us comes from our region and I think that is true no matter where you are. You should first and foremost rep where you are, right? We have work that is going to be reflective of where we are and where we exist and I don’t think that anybody can present the work of Latin America and the Caribbean in a way that’s better than we can.
The Noah Purify exhibition at LACMA was quite an achievement, organized in the right place, seemingly at the right time coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. In your catalog essay, you note that you first thought about doing such a show in 2008 when you were at the Menil Collection, which is in Houston, before you knew you would land in Los Angeles.
There is a reason for the Houston connection.
Walter Hopps? Yes.
Were you initially thinking you would organize it in Houston, because it seems serendipitous that you would end up in Los Angeles?
I was thinking that it would happen in Houston at first, but I couldn’t get it together in time. I couldn’t get it the right way. In Houston, in some ways it was about the peers. It was about taking a snapshot of L.A. at a given time and Hopps was a big part of that. Of course, another person who was a big part of that was [Edward] Kienholz who we have represented so well at the Menil Collection. It was about those factors and what happened for me, what made it easy to get to the monographic exhibition, was that Kelli Jones allowed me to explore that initial territory in a long essay on Walter Hopps for her catalog for “Now Dig This!” And obviously Pacific Standard Time took the wind out of my sails on any exhibition that would be about Southern California at that time.
“I was thinking that [the Noah Purifoy exhibition] would happen in Houston at first, but I couldn’t get it together in time. I couldn’t get it the right way.” — Franklin Sirmans
[Walter Hopps is a renowned curator who co-founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and worked at what was then called the Pasadena Art Museum before moving on to other roles around the country, including key posts at the Menil Collection that overlapped with Sirmans’ tenure there. Sirmans opens the “Now Dig This!” essay by stating that Hopps must play a central role in any discussion about modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles.]
But you did end up in L.A., where you organized the Purifoy exhibition at LACMA. For you, where does it stand in terms of all of the other work you have done?
There is always a curatorial balance that we seek to find. And it’s also the same sort of balance we seek to find as museum directors in between the monographic and the thematic, the group versus the individual. Purifoy was one of those people, because of how interesting I thought his biography was—in addition to the interesting work that so many people had not seen—it made it a really important and significant individual artist that I wanted to explore further. And then after Pacific Standard Time and seeing him in all of those group shows, it really became apparent, not only to me, but to everyone at the museum, that now was the perfect time to do a monographic exhibition of Purifoy.
“After Pacific Standard Time and seeing him in all of those group shows, it really became apparent, not only to me, but to everyone at [LACMA], that now was the perfect time to do a monographic exhibition of [Noah] Purifoy.” — Franklin Sirmans
In retrospect, and only in partial retrospect because the show goes to the Wexner [Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio] next month, I realize you can’t always balance current events against the exhibitions that you seek to do. In this case, it would’ve been a different show 10 years ago. It would have been a different show 10 years from now. But with the events of the last year, in particular, I think it had a real peculiar and strong resonance as being part of a contemporary dialogue, although the artist is no longer with us.
When you reference what’s happened in the past year, are you talking about social justice and issues with police?
Absolutely. Absolutely. [Purifoy] was the nexus of those things. He wanted to make his art and he wanted to also be a proponent of social justice and so he worked as both a social worker and then an artist and then as an advocate as well.
Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice is presenting a John Outterbridge exhibition opening Dec. 12 (curated by the Hammer Museum). Outterbridge was Purifoy’s peer, a fellow Los Angeles-based assemblage artist. Have you discussed the two exhibitions?
At an earlier point, I am sure we did. Purifoy exhibited at the Brockman Gallery that is basically right down the street from Art + Practice, so I am sure that we talked about it. Plus, there was a conversation in Houston with Rick Lowe, Mark and Theaster Gates that I remember because that conversation happened before Art + Practice existed and happened in the hometown of Project Row, which is also such an inspirational point for the show.
I was talking to all of them, even thinking about Prospect and talking to Rick early on especially with his knowledge of New Orleans. I was talking with Theaster about what he has done with Dorchester Projects. And Mark already having exhibited a very poignant work at the first Prospect, he was one of the first people I talked to when I first took on that position.
In terms of your trajectory, do you think taking on Prospect was an essential experience that helped prepare you to transition from serving as a curator to directing a museum?
Yeah. I think it was a great experience and certainly added another layer and another point of reference for me to then consider the directorial position. Without a doubt. With its combination of working within the community—I think we had 18 venues—and a lot of fundraising efforts that were combined between myself and Brook Davis Anderson [executive director of Prospect.3]. It absolutely was a great, I don’t want to call it a stepping stone but it definitely was a great experience that I believe has helped me or will help me in the director position.
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, “Untitled (Crown),” 1982 (acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper). | Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo by Mark-Woods.com
Growing up in Harlem, your father collected art—Palmer Hayden, Ed Clark, Hale Woodruff, Edward Bannister. But you had no interest in art until you discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat, who bridged the gap between what was happening in the streets and what you experienced with your father at the Studio Museum in Harlem. How do you feel about Basquiat now, 30 years later, with your formal experience and perspective in the art world?
The Basquiat Notebooks exhibition is coming to PAMM next summer in August. I have to say, it was one of many exhibitions that I was really excited about. In addition to how I feel about the city of Miami, the warmth of it, the place of it, getting back to the East Coast, the possibilities that exist here, getting the opportunity to work with the communities that exist here and the people who have already made a foundation here, albeit a young foundation. In addition to that, the programming that exists right now, the foundation that has been set in programming by Tobias Ostrander, our chief curator, made me feel really a part of that conversation.
They had the Ai Weiwei exhibition that opened. That’s an artist I’ve worked with. Firelei Báez is up right now, an artist I worked with in New Orleans. Nari Ward just opened, an artist I’ve known my entire working career. I was an intern at the Studio Museum when he was in the Artist-in-Residence program. Doris Solcedo comes up after Nari’s exhibition and that’s a show that we almost brought to L.A. She’s an artist I actually brought here to Miami in 2009 [in the group show “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith”]. After that comes Basquiat.
There is that overall program and that sense of “Ah, I understand this program. I can see it very clearly.” And Basquiat is a big part of that. I contributed to the catalog for Brooklyn and I also contributed to the catalog for Toronto, the one that just ended in Bilbao [“Now’s the Time”]. He’s an artist I will never forget. I will always feel like there is something new to say about Basquiat, especially with the dearth of more focused exhibitions, which is what this Notebooks show represents.
“I will always feel like there is something new to say about Basquiat, especially with the dearth of more focused exhibitions, which is what “[The Unknown] Notebooks” show represents.” — Franklin Sirmans
Who are the artists that excite you now?
Prospect was a big part of being able to work through that question. Theaster [Gates] is somebody who I think is an artist of the 21st century. He thoroughly excites me within this moment. At the same time, I can think of a younger painter, like Hayal Pozanti, who I think is amazing and works between representation and abstraction in a way that is always quite fluid and super interesting. Sterling Ruby super excites me. I just finished a big essay on him.
There are so many, but you know, at this point, I also feel like I am in a different place and it’s a different moment and in some ways being able to work on Prospect and get out some of those desires, to work with some of those artists, was really awesome.
I have an incredible team to work with here. Curators that I’ve known and admired. So I am excited to see what artists they are excited about and I am sure I’ll be excited about them, too.
In your new director role, how much of a challenge is it going to be for you to pivot away from a focus on curating?
I still have Toba Khedoori at LACMA next fall and we will see what kind of traveling we can cook up for that. Aside from that, there’s always a big long list and some of those artists would probably fit into the conversation super well here in Miami. Those probably will happen in some way or the idea of them will be seen. Others you save for another place, another time, or they become things that you are able to expound upon or expand upon in another format.
For me, right now, it’s not my primary concern. Between working with the curators, between exhibitions and acquisitions, and programs, that’s part of the reason I think they wanted me to come to Miami and why I wanted to be in Miami. There are a lot of links between artists that I have been thinking of or will be thinking of and artists that our curators will be thinking of. So there’s going to be a lot of synergy. There already is.
Do you collect catalogs? What is your relationship with art books?
I have too many. I try to prune every now and then.
What are your go-to resources? What’s on your ideal bookshelf?
Monographs, group exhibitions, criticism. I return to Peter Schjeldahl. I return to Henry Geldzahler. I return to Frank O’Hara, both creatively and nonfiction. From a critical point of view those are interesting to me, in addition to so many peers that I can’t even go on.
The catalog for “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” includes a series of photographs created at the artist’s desert studio especially for the exhibition.
When you are working on a catalog, how do you think about it in terms of the design, content, and contributors? What do you want to accomplish with your exhibition catalogs?
Sometimes it’s more than an extension of an exhibition. I think that between scholarship and entertaining, catalogs are another vehicle to provide information. That’s what I’ve thought about. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great editors and some great designers and publishers.
With the Purifoy catalog it does one thing. The next Purifoy catalog will do something else. Prospect did one thing, and it could have been different, but it gave everybody a couple of pages with images and it gave some voices a chance to think a little more abstractly around the work. That was what I wanted to do. Oh, and the other big thing about Prospect was that we must have engaged about 30 young curators and thinkers to do the writing—people who at the beginning of their careers. That was crucial. It really enlightened me and I hope it enlightened other people in the process.
Do you think much about the design? When you begin a catalog project do you have an idea of what you would like it to do visually?
I have been fortunate. I have a great designer who can think through anything. And that’s where I feel most complementary because they have their thing and they have their style and then we are working in conversation and in collaboration and that’s how we got to Purifoy. That’s of course with one of the great designers there is—with Lorraine Wild.
I guess each catalog is a little bit different. One of the things with Purifoy was that the existing photography before our exhibition was not great. So we took the opportunity to go to the genesis of the latter part of his life. And that meant doing a big portfolio of images by an incredible photographer [Fredrik Nilsen] who spent time out in the desert overnight to capture the work in situ—where Purifoy spent his last 20 years working—in varying degrees of light. That was the important part.
Whereas with Prospect everything is just an existing image, if I remember correctly, I didn’t believe in waiting for the exhibition to open and then do the photography. I wanted to have the catalog there when we opened.
I must say the “Basquiat and the Bayou” catalog is something that I was really proud to be a part of, having one of the first professors who really engaged Basquiat’s work in a way that was expansive in terms of locating the work in a much broader world history (Robert Farris Thompson). And then to have Robert O’Meally, who was one of my first professors freshman year at Wesleyan contribute was really a treat.
You began your career at art publications. When you were at Wesleyan, and you majored in English and art history, were you thinking you would pursue writing or become a curator?
It was more about writing. It was definitely more about writing and when I worked at DIA, I worked in the publications department not in the curatorial department.
Franklin Sirmans served as artistic director of “Prospect.3,” which was held in New Orleans from Oct. 25, 2015-Jan. 25, 2016. He says it was important that the catalog be available at the beginning of Prospect, rather than be delayed in order to have installation images of the exhibitions appear in the book.
What brought about the change?
I think it was a combination of factors. The writing could only do so much for me at that time in terms of paying the rent. Also, there was a certain point where the writing and the teaching collided. I did a class on criticism once. That class went back to the late 19th century to the present—literally from talking about criticism at a very early point, then going forward to having studio visits by the end of the class with living artists. There was a desire at some point to see the work physically and be able to move the work around physically. Not only to talk about Picasso’s influences from African art, but what do they really look like. There was that desire to be closer to the objects than you are from the writing point of view.
“There was a desire at some point to see the work physically, Not only to talk about Picasso’s influences from African art, but what do they really look like. There was that desire to be closer to the objects than you are from the writing point of view.” — Franklin Sirmans
The other thing was working at Flash Art and trying to edit these pieces where it was like, well, it’s one thing to do a monographic article, now what does it mean? Flash Art was one of those places where they pushed for the identification of trends. You would try and get people to write four and five articles all addressing a similar theme, as though there were some zeitgeist every two months, when the magazine came out, which isn’t necessarily true, but it was the attempt. Also, they were very, very, geographically inclined. We would do a report from Korea. We would do a report from Istanbul, before that was a regular part of all of the art magazines like it is now. Being in Italy [working at Flash Art] from 1996 to 1998 when all of those biennials happened was probably something that led to curating when I got back to New York after that experience.
How will Art Basel be different for you this year, since you are living in Miami now and running a major museum in the city?
(Laughs.) It is going to be so different. I can’t get in and get out. Instead of it being a quick fast-paced thing, it’s going to be a slower sort of thing. I plan to be at the museum a lot and I am looking forward to greeting people. Last time, I was on the other side. We have great shows up, so I am looking forward to people coming to see them. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
TOP IMAGE: PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans at Pérez Art Museum Miami | Photo by Angel Valentin Courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami
Franklin Sirmans has published several exhibition catalogs. The catalog for the LACMA exhibition, “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.” features new photography of the artist’s installations at Joshua Tree. “Prospect.3: Notes for Now” coincided with the citywide exhibition in New Orleans. “Basquiat and the Bayou” focuses on a series of paintings the consider “deep psychological and spiritual terrain of the American South.”