IN CONVERSATION WITH…
FRANKLIN SIRMANS, Director of the Perez Art Museum
“What can art tell us about our moment? I try to squarely focus on the work’s relevance to people or society regardless if we are talking about a piece from the 17th Century or if we are talking about a piece that was made yesterday, that is still the driving force for me.”
A Global Citizen.
From a very early age, writing and poetry were the things. Literature, in and of itself, is an art form to me, so I never considered becoming an artist. One year I did a semester study at Morehouse and took a photography class at Spellman that was amazing, but that was it. I was fortunate in that I grew up in New York. In such a metropolitan city one can easily interact with art, culture, museums, and institutions. That is part of the allure.
My parents divorced when I was seven. At the age of eleven, I began living with my dad. Our house was always very warm and very specific. Each morning he would drive me to school on his way into the office. That was our time. When I think to how he prepared me for manhood my first thought is that he loved me and he showed me the levels. He was strong and vulnerable, and most importantly he let me know that the world was there for me to experience, and not that we were confined by any it.
My Mother, oh man, she just continues to be amazing every day. She was a single mother in New York City and seeing the breadth and depth of what she did for my sister and me on a daily basis is insane to me. Now as a parent I think about the amount of responsibility she must have felt, and it is miraculous to see now how she handled it all.
Because of my father, I was around a lot of artists in my youth and did not think much of it at the time, but clearly, it had an impact on me and my thinking. He had an interest in art, particularly black artists, so there were all these opportunities for me to meet them -whether I cared in that moment was debatable (laughter). In many ways that influence was subconscious and played a more significant role much later on. I remember one summer working in the studio of ED CLARK. Talk about a full-circle moment. We have a few of his pieces in the collection here at the Pérez.
I always had this idea of understanding that the world was big and I was excited about having conversations with people, but not just those here in America who may in some ways have a similar point of view, but too engage people from around the world and learn something new. That excites me.
London was the first international travel experience I can remember. It was a family trip. I was about 11 or 12, and recall being in that city and my eyes popping out of my head seeing the way that other people lived and learning their history.
Having parents who believed it was cool to see and explore the world in the same way that one knows the ins and outs of their neighborhood was important. It had the most profound effect on my life. I accepted early on the notion of learning through travel. It created a backbone for me and informed my thinking so much. It is a large part of shaping what I am interested in, the ways we come together regardless of where we are from and this over-arching desire to have art not just be part of people’s lives for it decorative or beautifying presence but in order for it to be a catalyst for our lives to potentially live better.
A lot of the work that my father was interested in was particularly the work of abstract painters and so when I first saw JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985 I knew that here was an artist speaking more directly to me in a way that those other artists were talking to my father. It was 100% clear what I was looking at. Jean-Michel was sitting in front of some of his paintings. He had on this fly suit and this kind of regal air to him. But what I saw was the visual, artistic symbol of Hip-Hop. Here was an artist using text inside of his paintings, so it was about a very readable painting. There was not that much left to the imagination. You were being pointed in a specific direction and the direction he was pointing you was often about our people, history, culture and how we present ourselves in the world. That took me to a completely different space. It wasn’t just about art as I had believed it to be anymore. It was about my generation in history as it pertained to the here and now.
I was in high school. At that age it is hard to speak on the greater cultural moment because you are just so ensconced, trying to make sense of the world. For me, now I can look back and see that moment was about the flowering of hip-hop; graffiti on subways and buses that was part of the experience. It was part and parcel of the moment. There is a ton of interesting work to be looked at and evaluated in terms of graffiti, now being recognized as art even if not truly explored in its purest form.
There was something interesting going on between uptown in Westchester and downtown Manhattan. I was in a zone of trying to live between those spaces at a very early point. That was the great juxtaposition of my life at that point of what appeared to be polar opposites but was really not; going to a club in downtown Manhattan and returning home to Westchester-being as familiar with KRS-ONE, ERIC B. & RAKIM as I was with THE SMITHS and THE THOMPSON TWINS. Different sides of the musical spectrum yet each of their lyrics were addressing the society and the culture as it was at that time.
The professional nomenclature starts at home. My Father was an OBGYN who went to Lincoln and Meharry. Despite the introductions to the art world and artists, the idea was definitely presented that medicine was the preferred field for me. Luckily, my younger sister received her PhD, so she carried that familial mantle which allowed me a clearer field to chart my own course.
In 1992, while at Wesleyan , I did my senior thesis on Jean-Michel. I knew THELMA GOLDEN. She was very much a mentor at that point, and now a dear friend. At that time, she was working at one of the satellite branches of The Whitney (Phillip Morris) and told the curator RICHARD MARSHALL about my thesis which led to me assisting on that show and developing the chronology that was part of the catalog. That led to my first real gig, in 1993, working in New York for The Center For The Arts. During this time, I continued writing and presenting my work at the Nuyorican Poets Café and also writing more article-based criticisms for magazines.
In 1996, I left the Día Center and went to in Milan. Talk about a city that has a deep place in my heart. I try to go there every other year. The experience of living in Italy for many years prepared me for Miami so I was not immune to living in a place where my language is not the mother tongue.
The first real show I curated was in 2001 at the Bronx Museum One Planet Under A Groove: Contemporary Art and Hip Hop.The show included Basquiat, KEITH HARING, ADRIAN PIPER, DAVID HAMMONS, CHRIS OFILI, GARY SIMMONS, HISASHI TENMYOUYA, and many others. Some selections were obvious. Some like Adrian were more conceptual, but they were all about what happens when artists are looking at the music of our time in a conceptual way.
Art is everywhere. It is not this rarified space reserved for a select few in a certain socio-economic bracket that it is discussed as. From the beginning of my career and especially now, I try to examine and explore the entry points that have more resonance in other forms of popular culture.A good example of that is the One Planet Under A Grooveshow. It was an exhibition about contemporary art and its relationship to hip-hop. NeoHooDoo, which I did a The Menil Collection in Houston, was a show about contemporary art and its relationship to spirituality within a moment, and most recently theFútbol: The Beautiful Game, an exhibition that I did at LACMA about soccer and its relationship to contemporary art. To find these different ways in through other forms of popular culture is a way to open up the art conversation for people.
I am interested in the intersection of art and culture and how it can help us live better on a daily basis. For me, it is about what can art tell us about our moment. I try to squarely focus on the work’s relevance to people or society regardless if we are talking about a piece from the 17th Century or if we are talking about a piece that was made yesterday, that is still the driving force for me.
Miami is not your average American city. In the last thirty to forty years it has been changed by the many different groups of people who come here from places outside of the continental USA. If you think about Miami in terms of its demographics, it is very much representative of the city of the future. What we do with that we will see. Miami has the potential to become something different, a place that is more inclusive than other cities in the country.
As I think to ways I am seeking to expand our landscape of identity, my travels to Africa come to mind. I have been way north and way south on the African continent, but recently, I was in Dakar, Senegal. That was the most amazing experience because it is so different culturally from going to South Africa or Egypt. Dakar is very much West Africa. I think the ties that I have been interested in exploring specific to the African Diaspora and Diasporic history are tied to West Africa.
PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI
A lot of people think that we have only been around for five years because that is how long we have been in this new building and renamed. In actually, we are about to celebrate our 35th Anniversary next year. In 1984, we started out as the Center For Fine Art and then became the Miami Art Museum in 1996, before becoming the Pérez Art Museum of Miami in 2013. We have an incredible location on the waters of Biscayne Bay with views to Miami Beach allowing us to be firmly part of the city of Miami and the county of Miami-Dade. The selection of the works we show here are truly a team effort. We have 4 Curators and 2 Fellows. Each running around the world looking at art all the time and thinking about what would be ideal for us to show. We embrace who we are and how we are, and talk about the works of art from artists spanning Latin American, The Caribbean, and the African Diaspora-which sets us apart from a lot of our peers.
Our focus is to shine a light on modern artists the likes of WIFREDO LAM from Cuba whose focus was on the Afro-Cuban experience. On November 8th, we opened a show of Kingston-based artist EBONY PATTERSON. A lot of her works deals with aspects of growing and living in Jamaica. She is a fantastic colorist who works with textiles and weaves paintings that are both abstract in some ways but decorative with narratives embedded in them. I am really excited about this show. During Basel, we will have her in town for a breakfast and live talk. Also, in October we opened CHRISTO and JEANNE-CLAUDE’s Surrounded Island documentation exhibition on the great symbolic beginning of contemporary art here in Miami. The piece was originally done in 1983 where they surrounded the island of Biscayne Bay with this beautiful pink fabric. Next year, we will open a show of the great Columbian artist BEATRIZ GONZÁLEZ.
Museum Week is the first week in December each year. It is our time to shine and be part of the landscape opening up our doors and welcoming our peers from around the world so they can come and see what you have been up to during the year. It is incredible. There is nothing like it. We try to go a bit crazy that week with exhibitions-having events every hour of the day and recognition dinners. Basel for us is a point of celebration for everything that we have worked on throughout the year and that we provide for the community here in Miami to be shared with an international audience.
I enjoy the community of being part of the conversation with colleagues from around the world; exchanging ideas and sharing news of what we have each seen and experienced. I thrive on that ability to speak internationally and with a broad cross-section of people.
The MANTRA(Voice in My Head)
I don’t have a mantra or phrase on mental repeat. I think that to do what I do and see the world as I need to necessitates me being open and capable of embracing whatever it is that the day will bring. That is my meditation.
Invisible Cities by ITALO CALVINO. He is a writer I return to often. Six Memos For The Next Millennium a nonfiction book of essays by him is also a mainstay. Italo could draw upon history and fantasy in a way that allows us to see something better. Similar to yet different, I love OCTAVIA BULTER, which very much based in science fiction, but as black people, that lens is about helping us to understand or seek to make some sense of the peculiar crazy that we have endured. Calvino’s work is different in that it is not science fiction, but it embraces an equally fantastical space that is intertwined with history and creative ways of revisiting history free of those boundaries.
JAMES BALDWIN to speak the obvious. You can’t think too much about literature, culture, society, humanity or politics without thinking through him. He was so eloquent and vehemently proud, and yet open to other people and other conversations. I cannot think of anybody else who comes out of conversation and culture who can be considered to be such a statesman.
There are so many to name, so I will identify the ones on constant rotation:
Songs In The Key Life by STEVIE WONDER
FELA. Any album of his.
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO. No explanation needed.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
Personally, that my work created a more embracing space for our kids.
Professionally, to open the doors of possibility by example in that more people of color explore executive careers in the arts. When I think to our internal culture here at Pérez, I know that we are not truly our whole self unless we as a state of fact are composed of various races, genders, sexuality, and belief. This is how we become great. When you bring all of these perspectives together you have a closer view, a real humanist picture of the world and the best foundation to reflect that and inspire others. That is why I am so proud of our team, and the work we are doing, because we are that.
There are many great post-undergrad programs out there for anyone interested in art history and seeking to work in the world of museums. In particular, The Ford Foundation, The Mellon Foundation, and The Walton Family Foundation have been very much looking at how to diversify the field, and create a more humanist body of representation within our museums and cultural institutions
5 Things I can’t live without
My Wife. I appreciate her sense of pure knowing. She does not second guess her gut, and I value that. We have known each other for a very long time, so her friendship is paramount to my life.
Creative Expression of every discipline