A Space for Everything to Happen
Franklin Sirmans with Laila Pedro
Laila Pedro (Rail): You lead a very particular institution at a very particular moment, and are about to embark on some transformative endeavors. Before we get to the present and the future, perhaps we can talk about the past—about your trajectory and your history. Could you tell me about your background, growing up in Harlem in a family that cared deeply about art and collected art? What was your early exposure to collecting and to museums, and how did that propel you into the art world?
Franklin Sirmans: There were those general museum visits from school programs, like the Metropolitan Museum. I went to school on 96th Street and 5th Avenue, which is right across the street. The real experience, the more subconscious thing, would be the Studio Museum. It originally was in Harlem and my father had been going there. Because of that experience, it’s always something that’s there and accessible. I knew those people in a way that’s foundational—art existed in a place where you just walk up the steps, or amidst the bustle of 125th Street.
Rail: Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone growing up in New York when you did, Basquiat was a significant early encounter, and very important to you when you were young. Later, you did a show dedicated to him, Basquiat [Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; 2005]. Can you talk about your relationship to Basquiat’s work?
Sirmans: The Basquiat thing, I feel, relates strongly to me and my generation. It was the beginning of hip-hop. For example, in eighth grade, when I began listening to Grandmaster Flash, I used to take the M1 bus, and you were curious about all of those different markers, all the tags you saw on the bus. It was about that timing. It was in front of your face—I wasn’t adept at it but I wanted to do something with the marker. There were people in my class who were really adept at it. The other cool thing is I had exposure through my father to museums and people’s houses but it was at a generational removal; it was my parents’ generation.
Basquiat on the cover of Time magazine in 1985 was like, I get it! You are not only this, and this, and that, you’re all those things at once. You are the history of the western canon, the kid who sits next to you on the bus. It’s such an immediate resonance and then you put the music thing on top; then you grasp that there is a visual equivalence to the music. That’s the transformative experience.
Rail: You put that all together in the 2001 show, One Planet Under a Groove: Contemporary Art and Hip Hop, which started out the Bronx Museum of the Arts and then traveled to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, through 2003.
Sirmans: Subconsciously that resonance, the unified experience, has been with me forever; and it stays with me now. But yes, I put together the show One Planet Under a Groove at the Bronx Museum. We only had two pieces from Basquiat in that show, but it didn’t matter. One was massive, and the second piece has come out a lot recently—it was made on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio after Michael Stewart died in 1983. We just recently did a conversation about it at Williams College, a few months ago. There was a sense that the people who made it and shaped it and created the visual equivalent were gone, but they were part of that exhibition. Another anchor of the exhibition was more conceptual, which came out of a lot of concerns in the ’90s, so on the other side you had Adrian Piper and David Hammons.
Rail: In terms of both the writing and the work?
Sirmans: Yes. For Adrian, of course, the writing was definitely something we leaned on. Hammons had the piece In the Hood, and Adrian had Funk Lessons. Even though they were not as young as some of the other artists, they brought a different angle: they were removed and making commentary, in addition to the painters making paintings.
Rail: The sense of being of and embedded in a time and place, while also being able to frame these at a conceptual and practical remove, is a curatorial perspective that joins the subjective and the analytic in a compelling way. You took this sensibility to the Menil Collection in Houston, and then to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where you were a curator and department head. Presumably in that position you started to grapple with defining the priorities of your role, in terms of institutional self-perception and also future direction. What does that role mean and what are the gaps that need to be filled when you set yourself a curatorial imperative to fill in or build up? Or were you collaging from the collection?
Sirmans: It was a combination of both. I think it is important to backtrack for a moment and say that I worked at Dia early on in publications, from 1993 to ’96. Michael Govan came at that time, and part of going to LACMA was talking to Michael and being part of that conversation. It was thinking about the idea of what the museum could be, not so much just the exhibitions, but what they could physically generate in the space around them: it was about creating a space for everything to happen. I got there right after the Renzo Piano building was completed, the contemporary art building, and the restaurant. It was this way of thinking about museums as a place for everybody to come together, in which the inside and outside are equally important. And then there were opportunities to do shows like Fútbol: The Beautiful Game  in a place like L.A. Having that opportunity to think about things like sports in the context of the museum—I’m trying to say that it’s a new and particular way to think about museums. LACMA has a collection, don’t get me wrong, but it’s different. It’s not the Menil Collection, it’s not Dia, where you have the concentration on single artists. At LACMA, if you look at the Abstract Expressionist gallery, it rarely changes. Thus, since we’re talking about the encyclopedic museum, the desire is to see contemporary art as a way to discuss everything. Even if we’re talking about the art of ancient China, we might be interested in commentary from somebody like Ai Weiwei. The portal to pre-Columbian art at LACMA is done by Jorge Pardo, a contemporary Cuban American artist and sculptor. Those sorts of juxtapositions and intersections are coming to the fore.
Rail: So it’s a kind of visionary investment in the museum tapping into concerns that universal, that are shared across time and space. It is interesting to bring a sense of history—of cultural history and art history—to bear on that notion of everything happening together or simultaneously. You started in New York City and your most recent post was in L.A. Both of those places, comparatively, have a lengthier and more visible relationship to their own history. Now you are in a new kind of context. In Miami, before this expansion, the PAMM was the Miami Art Museum, or MAM, which was not a collecting institution until 1994. There was the Bass, which is in Miami Beach rather than Miami proper, and is a smaller collecting institution. FIU has the Frost and the Wolfsonian; the MOCA recently underwent a complicated evolution into ICA. So while there has been a museum presence, it has not been at this scale.
Now, you are charged with this three-year old Herzog & de Meuron building that has a Metromover station and a sculpture park, and is a stone’s throw from downtown Miami and the Arsht Center and major commercial districts. Another museum is being built on the same campus, which is reminiscent of the Planetarium-Field Museum-Aquarium campus in Chicago. The Pérez Art Museum itself is significant, but also the footprint—the effect, as you said, that it has on the space around it—is of a new scale for Miami.
Sirmans: To think about L.A. between 1959 and 1965, they only had a museum of natural history and those expositions, right? Things didn’t exist—but then they started to pop up. We have that kind of energy. There was a moment in the early ’60s when artists stayed in L.A. Now, artists are starting to stay in Miami. We are a really important metropolis where people want to come to from all over the world. But for someone like Edouard Duval-Carrié or José Bedia there’s a whole other thing—being from Haiti and being from Cuba respectively—that makes Miami the same thing in some ways, the same cultural space. There are so many exciting ways to think about what can a museum be, right? And to think about it in a timeframe where, as you said, it didn’t exist. That whole fortress over there, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, has only been there for ten years; you just came in past a project which hopefully will be all ready by the end of summer; the Patricia and Phillip Frost Science Museum. You mentioned ICA—they’re building right now in the Design District.
Rail: It’s a fecund kind of environment, certainly. And within that environment now there’s this second major gift from Jorge Pérez, which reads to me like it is a mandate to build one of the landmark Latin American art collections in the United States. When I say gift, of course, I mean donation but obviously for a museum director that is a gift. I believe there is a significant aspect that is earmarked to Cuban and Cuban American art?
Sirmans: There sure is. So, first I’m reminded of that fact that when we talk about inside/outside you have—at least in my imagination—the geographical bridge, for example the L.A. and Miami bridge. My daughter was born in L.A. and the first art piece that she fell in love with was a work by Jesús Rafael Soto, which was this yellow spaghetti structure on the plaza in L.A. We have this huge blue one out in the sculpture park here in Miami. So this experience of inside and outside is integral.
We lead from where we are. Given our context here, I think that means an allegiance to Miami artists, an allegiance to what’s happening in this city and the incredible diversity, for lack of a better word, that this city represents. But then you lead outward in concentric circles from there. We are, ultimately, a museum dedicated to international contemporary art. When we opened we had an exhibition of Ai Weiwei up at the same time as Treasures from the Pérez Collection, focusing on work by black American artists. We lead from here: and that means that we will be the best, I think, at presenting the work of Latin American and Caribbean artists. If you go around to private collections, you see works by Wifredo Lam that are unbelievable, or Carmen Herrera. New York wants to talk about Carmen Herrera now, but Miami’s been talking about her for who knows how long. If we simply look at where we are—that’s what makes us special and unique: we speak from this voice that is unlike anywhere else.
There is a great community of art lovers and collectors here, and building and supporting those relationships is crucial to our success, it’s integral to our future. A lot of our history here, obviously, is built on the fact that there wasn’t a museum and so then you have this preponderance of private collecting galleries and private collecting spaces that have fulfilled a crucial role at times. What we are trying to do is speak from the context of the museum. For instance, there’s a work up downstairs in the museum by Glenn Ligon which is from the collection of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, and we put it up next to a smaller piece from our own collection in order to have these conversations. This is absolutely essential. We are who we are. We are the people who are here, the community.
Rail: And as you say, it’s a community of serious collectors, like the de la Cruz collection. Because you’re going to be building a collection, how are you dealing with integrating different kinds of mediums and different kinds of practices?
Sirmans: We look at the history that’s there. We started as an idea in the mid-’80s and became a collecting institution in the mid-’90s. We became a collecting institution between the 1993 Whitney Biennial and Thelma Golden’s Black Male exhibition there , as a couple of bookends. That’s when this space started collecting, so Ana Mendieta is in the collection. Doris Salcedo was someone that was part of that conversation from early on. Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, these are artists that have been collected, so they are foundational.
When it comes to medium, if anything maybe we enter into a conversation where we know that there’s a lot that we can do in terms of modernist conversations, for instance, because of our relationship to Latin America, our relationship to the Caribbean. We have an exhibition coming up of the preeminent Jamaican modernist John Dunkley. So we can do that, we can go back. But we can talk about that work because of where we are. With Joaquín Torres García, similarly, there are more than a few pieces in the collection. And of course, Amelia Peláez. We are certainly capable of doing that; these painterly shows are certainly things we are able to do.
But I also think that, like other museums dedicated to international contemporary art, there’s only so much we do within that space of the grand painting tradition. And so we also think a lot about film and video, especially as it relates to our constituency, to our audience. We’re at that point where—and I say this reluctantly—most of the people that walk in the door have been around screens, in a particular way and for an extended period of time, that is different from what that experience or exposure was even ten or fifteen years ago. That is something that we have to grapple with. The counterbalance, or a positive aspect, is that you’ll always find something significant in terms of film and video on view. So right now, Susan Hiller is up, with a room-size installation piece. The Danish artist collective SUPERFLEX is up right now, another room-size installation piece. That’s pretty much constant. Stan Douglas was on view last year. I think we feel, not unlike other institutions, that we can do a lot from that vantage point. You mentioned the word “universal”—film and video have become more of a lingua franca around the world. Anywhere you go, people have a relationship to it, and it’s not as weighted, say, in a Western tradition or an Eastern tradition. The ground is more open, more fertile.
Rail: Has there been anything that’s been a really unexpected challenge about this particular institution or building up more this collection?
Sirmans: The challenge is also what it makes it such a fertile thing. Because it’s so young as a city in some ways, because it hasn’t had the history of institutions in the way they have in the north for instance, you have a relationship to philanthropy that’s kind of nascent in certain respects. Specifically, the idea that one has a civic responsibility to give back to the cultural institutions because they enrich our lives and hopefully make us better human beings, or able to relate and understand each other in a better way, in my most optimistic sense.
Rail: It’s grappling with the emergence of a new enlightenment, or a new international contemporary humanism as a city.
Sirmans: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that!
Rail: No, it’s a net positive! [Laughter.]
Sirmans: Still, because it is new, you do have to make the case for it. I think it’s the challenge but it’s also the thing that gives you a richer result. So that said, and being quite equitable in recognizing that because we’ve had this history (it’s also funny to use the word history when you’re only talking about twenty-five years), of private collecting spaces, there is sometimes an embedded idea that art is something that is just for certain people to have.
Rail: The way in which you are telling this story—narrating this history—brings me back again to your work at Dia and being involved with publications. You have a very writerly background, with a concern for how language frames works and places and institutions. What is the story you are writing here, now?
Sirmans: A big part of what I signed up for in coming here, a really significant part of what excited me, was the curatorial team. I knew almost all of them and respected what they had to say. They’ve created incredible narratives that align with recognizing that foundation of being a place that started in the mid ’80s and started collecting in the mid ’90s, and being part of a city that has changed drastically since this organization started, and wanting to reflect that.
It’s not just us in this moment, either. Going back to Suzanne Delehanty, the art director here in the ’90s, she saw very clearly the city has changed; you can’t do the same thing that you might have done in the 1980s, or the early 1980s, before demographically the city changed so much. So the curators have really taken that history and continuously mined it, while also really being part of the present. Our chief curator, Tobias Ostrander, is very much one who seeks to tell stories with every exhibition.
Rail: Well, last time I was here was to review Tobias’s show, Poetics of Relation, which was based in the work of Édouard Glissant. Glissant was my teacher when I was doing my doctorate, and a big part of what I wrote about was the same concept, the concept of relation as it applied to the visual in a particular series of dialogues around French and Cuban art.
So I saw this show was coming up and I thought, Well, I’m going to Miami to see it and I’m either going to love this or be so upset. Spoiler alert: I loved it. [Laughter]. It was a tough sell; I’m very protective of him.
Sirmans: That’s amazing.
Rail: And it’s a hard concept. Glissant was not a simple or uncomplicated thinker in any way. I think for Tobias to take that on was not only ambitious but very effective, and uncannily accurate in encapsulating the city and the kind of shows that represent the city.
Sirmans: That is essential to what we try to do. And we have to do that, right? In the same way that being in L.A., or being in New York, you have to grapple with that question: Where do you fit in and how do you stand off of your unique situation? So, here, we don’t live in a city with grand narratives that go back to the history of the beginning of museums. And it’s so freeing, because you do have to seek out new stories. Consequently, I think that, as a curatorial framework, we are very much built on that. Once a year, for example, in the summertime, we try to reinstall the whole permanent collection galleries, and for the most part that’s mainly driven by some sort of theme or narrative. It may be loosely applied; it may end up being a room of geometric abstraction, a room of gestural abstraction, a room of highly political works at the same time, but it is going to be thought through and contextualized for this place and moment. And then I did a show called NeoHooDo: Art for a Forgotten Faith that came here in 2009. Which was an attempt to talk about narratives that come from this space, geographically, culturally, and spiritually.
Rail: Narratives that are grounded in a place but then can extrapolate beyond that point.
Sirmans: Yeah, we can’t set up twenty paintings and say, “this is the history of such and such” or, “representative of the history…”—that’s just not going to happen.
Rail: It’s creating a multipolar world, right? As opposed to a couple hundred years ago it was Paris, then it became New York. Those were unipolar, empire-driven models. Now it seems there is an opening to perceive things more as constellations rather than orbital systems.
Sirmans: Absolutely. And within that constellation also thinking about how collaboration, and working with other people and institutions, enriches and enhances the dialogue.
LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.