Before he was tapped, earlier this fall, to direct the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Franklin Sirmans was the department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There, he witnessed the expansion—explosion, really—of the city’s art scene, as well as the growing influence of its collectors on a cultural landscape long associated with local artists and art schools.
This experience should come in handy at PAMM, the biggest of Miami’s museums and the one that has undergone the most radical changes in recent years. Formerly known as the Miami Art Museum and located in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center, it relocated in 2013 to a striking new Herzog and de Meuron-designed building in Museum Park on the downtown waterfront. In the process, it was renamed after developer Jorge M. Pérez in exchange for his $35 million gift of art and cash (a move that prompted the resignations of four board members). Fundraising remains a challenge; the museum is reportedly about $50 million short of its goal of a $70 million endowment.
Sirmans, who started at his new post in mid-October, is hoping to give Miamians something else to talk about: a museum that can use the city's proximity to (and infusion of capital from) Latin and South America to bring a multicultural perspective to contemporary art. He'll be drawing on his experience as a widely respected curator of shows including “Basquiat” (in 2005-6), “Prospect 3” (2014, New Orleans), and “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith” (which came to PAMM back when it was MAM), exhibitions that piqued the interest of both local audiences and critics around the country.
During a brief respite from the circus of Art Basel Miami Beach, Sirmans spoke with Artspace’s Karen Rosenberg about the challenges and advantages of a "super-young" museum and what he’s learned from L.A..
Right now we’re in the home stretch of the manically festive week that is Art Basel Miami Beach, which as you’ve said shines a yearly spotlight on the city. What are some of the pros and cons of that once-a-year attention?
By nature, we are trying to be part of a large conversation; to have so many people come in, who are also a part of that conversation, is fantastic. And then you get another layer on top of that, because it’s become such an event that you get a ton of people from Miami interested who probably don’t go to museums very often, and they say, “Why are all these people coming to my city to see what I get to have most of the time?" There’s a real buzz among people who actually live here.
Of course, there are pros and cons to growth. But we’re here 365 days a year, trying to create exhibitions and programs and places for dialogue for all the people that live around here, first and foremost. And you want those conversations to reverberate around the world.
If you look at our galleries, I know that they are. We just opened an exhibition of Sheela Gowda, who is from South India. We have Nari Ward up, who lives in New York but is from Jamaica. We have Firelei Báez up, who is from the Dominican Republic but lives in New York. We have Australian Aboriginal painting. Good for us, that we get to take advantage of the fact that all these international eyes come here one week, and are going to see our shows!
How do you keep that energy going the rest of the year?
The thing is, we don’t have to do something different—we are the Perez Art Museum of Miami, Dade County. We have an allegiance to the city and an allegiance to the county that is built into our name, and we can recognize the great artists that are around us. We want to do that every day, and it’s nice that a lot of people who are interested in these conversations come here for a week, but it’s also something that we’re going to have up anyway. Nari Ward opened two weeks ago, for everybody in Miami. It doesn’t open for Art Basel.
Miami is known to be a very collector-driven art scene, compared to some other cities in which you’ve worked. How have you adjusted, and how are you engaging local collectors?
I’m engaged with every one of them, and I’ve made that a point from day one. I truly believe that we have a position at the center of a conversation that they, frankly, have been having. We can be the place where everybody can come together and have that conversation, in addition to the fact that we do all this ancillary stuff—night education programs and bringing in kids from the school system, which is a really important part of what we do.
And I like to stress the fact that the museum is not just a place to go and look at art—it’s a place where you go to sit and look at the bay. We have the kind of space that enhances, or at least allows for, contemplation that you don't find everywhere. I remember going to sit in the Monet room at the MoMA as a young person, and I want to have those kinds of moments, whether it happens outside or inside.
You do have all this fantastic outdoor space, and a connection to the outdoors that’s palpable within the galleries. This is something other museums with new construction are also thinking about—look at the new Whitney, for example, with its terraces that open onto the High Line.
And we get to take advantage of that space a little bit more often than them!
That’s certainly true. What are you doing, specifically, to capitalize on it?
We have events every third Thursday that are outside. We try to engage programming for the exhibitions around that aspect of the building, so if there is a musical or dance conversation sparked by an exhibition, it happens outside. This week we had PAMM Presents!, with Ryan McNamara and Dev Hynes. We’re also doing some film installation outside. We try to use the outside space as much as possible.
We have kids’ programs, where they can come in and be in not only a learning environment, but also a doing environment—actually making things. We have a yoga program that’s going to be up on the terrace. There’s a sculpture garden out there—that’s an important part of the building as well. Our relationship to our neighbors will become more apparent, especially when the Frost museum is done, up the road. Our center for performing arts is over there; AmericanAirlines Arena is over there, and there’s a great big museum park for us to talk about and do things in.
Speaking of other museums, Miami’s museum landscape is very much in flux. The ICA Miami, for instance, just broke ground on their new building. What are some of the ways in which PAMM can stand out from the pack?
There’s more, more, more—we have the university space, we have the ICA, we have MoCA North Miami, we have the Bass. Each one engages the city in a different way. We’re the center, we’re the biggest, and we look to collaborate—and we look to collaborate on equal terms. I’ve spoken to most of my colleagues, and I believe that collaboration en masse will further the conversation here in Miami—for residents as well as visitors.
In terms of my past experience, the way the constellation of museums worked in Houston with the Menil, the Contemporary, and the MFA was a very different thing. The conversation here is more geared to the modern and the contemporary, because that’s Miami. It’s super-young. For us to do anything similar to the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago or even the MFA Houston would be crazy. We can’t go back and get the things they have. But at the same time, that’s what allows the conversation to be different and to be grounded in a foundation that is perhaps a little more progressive than the one that accompanied our museums in the 19th century. That’s our strength and opportunity.
The museum started in the mid-1980s, and didn’t start collecting until the mid-‘90s. This building has only been here for two years. So the little kids that are coming into this building, this is their first experience of the museum. They don’t know anything about walking up the feudal steps that are made in the fashion of the Parthenon, and this entrance through a Greco-Roman architecture. They know nothing about that. Their hometown museum is going to be porous, inside/outside, inviting from all sides in a way that is quite different from that earlier model. And I think that we will be able to program exhibitions that are indicative of that difference.
You don’t have the historical baggage of the country’s older museums, in other words.
Nope. We can put up a 1945 Wifredo Lam in the gallery with an artist who’s been inspired by Lam, like Carlos Alfonso in the ceramics exhibition right now. You can play with that kind of idea. We have some pretty good works by the school of Joaquin Torres-Garcia, but showing them here is not like showing them in Boston or Minneapolis—it’s about Uruguay, it’s about South America, it’s about a relationship that is right there in your face.
Nari Ward is up now, and Doris Salcedo, a Colombian artist, will be next. The show is coming from New York, but it’s going to play very differently here. That’s followed by an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the “Notebooks” show from the Brooklyn Museum—that’s going to play way differently here.
As you say, the permanent collection is quite young—and it has been seen as a weakness of this museum. How are you working with what you have, and where do you hope to expand?
There’s a rubric that [PAMM Chief Curator] Tobias Ostrander has created under “GPS,” for Global Positioning Systems. We’re international, we’re about technology, we’re about the new. We have the Perez gift, and it’s something to jump off of. But we also have pretty significant gifts from the Scholl collection, from Craig Robins. There are points of departure that are all about international contemporary art, but we can lead the conversation as it pertains to our region.
You don’t go to a lot of museums and walk into José Bedia. He came here from Cuba, he lives here, and he’s influenced generations of artists. Then you go upstairs and you see Lam, and you say, this makes perfect sense together. So we can talk in terms of strength and weakness, but I feel like we’re working from a point of strength. I just looked at a wonderful piece by Allora and Calzadilla, and an Alfredo Jaar, and those are important works in any museum.
Do we have room for growth? We have a ton of room for growth. That’s the cool part, because you get to define what the foundation of the museum is. That really makes it exciting for me.
Having been the curator of “Prospect 3” in New Orleans, you have experience organizing big events that spill out into the community. How might that play into your work at PAMM?
That’s one of the many reasons that it feels like such a perfect fit. I come into an exhibition program that’s as reflective of my interests as it is of the interests of my curators. We have an inside/outside program. We have a Knight Foundation program, like in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Akron, where we take certain works and use reproduction to put them in different places around the city. It’s also about using the strength of the artists who surround you. You go downstairs, and you see work by Nick Lobo, or Dara Friedman, or William Cordova—they live here. We have a bunch of artists that can inform us about this geographic and cultural space, and help us think about ways we can move forward.
I work closely not only with my colleagues but also with our government officials and the community, all the way down to the little kids who come into the museum. We opened Nari Ward, and the Jamaican consul was here. Our commissioners, county and city, are here. That’s the kind of place that we’re in, in the same way that the mayor leads the charge at Miami Beach with Art Basel. We have a mayor and commissioners who are concerned with culture in their city and what it means to their citizens.
So you’re deeply engaged with local politics, as well as the politics of collectors.
That too—that’s probably the harder part.
Are you planning to initiate any signature surveys—a biennial or triennial, say, with the museum’s stamp on it?
Not yet. Maybe down the road. Those things have to be thought out and attacked, but they are part of the thinking—when we think about the region, we have to think about them.
As you’ve said elsewhere, fundraising is an increasingly important part of a curator’s job—and, of course, the primary job of a museum director. I realize that you’ve just started at PAMM, but do you plan to be involved in curating shows?
I see the job as 100 percent director. But part of that job is talking to my curators. I feel like if you’re going to move from a curatorial position to a director position, I’m in the perfect place to do that.
I don’t rule anything out, and I still have traveling shows from LACMA, but for this moment right now I’m just trying to focus on being a good director. I come from a lineage of people who have put me in a position to be pretty good—Charlie Wright, Michael Govan, Joseph Helfenstein, and then Michael Govan again in a completely different place and space.
Speaking of your experience with Michael Govan, most recently in Los Angeles: You witnessed the rapid expansion of the contemporary art scene there. How does that experience serve you here? Are there parallels between L.A. and Miami?
At this moment, L.A. is gigantic everywhere. I was at the de la Cruz collection a couple of weeks ago and I was looking at Sterling Ruby, Mark Grotjahn, Alex Israel—they’re everywhere. It’s reached a saturation point. You can sell L.A. art now—it doesn’t necessarily matter who you’re talking to, you can sell the idea of doing a young contemporary art show from L.A. and people will jump. That’s evidence of that rise.
There are a lot of comparisons. LACMA has only been there since 1965. MoCA opened in ’84. So it’s a really young history, as these things go—and ours is super-young. I’ve been coming down here since 2001, and I’ve worked closely with several artists from here—Luis Gispert and William Cordova, most prominently. I’ve watched Naomi Fisher. Now you have artists who stay, and I think that’s a mark. Before, you couldn’t say, “I want to be a successful artist who’s part of the international contemporary art scene, and I want to live in Miami.” You couldn’t do that 10 years ago. And I think we’re getting to that point.
Of course, with L.A., people come from everywhere else. That migration isn’t occurring specifically among artists yet, but it’s certainly happening in terms of South and Central America and the Caribbean. Everybody wants to have a place here, and I think that’s part of the wave, in the same way that people discovered L.A. for its natural beauty, or Palm Springs in the ‘50s. It’s ripe for that sort of thing.
Does it have to become a center where artists flock from all over the world? I’m not sure. It’s a city of less than half a million people. It can work on different registers and different levels. I think there’s something worthy in that—like working in New Orleans, or working in Houston. I think those places are always going to be different than New York or L.A. or San Francisco, and there’s something we need about that.