Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum, Miami

with Caitlin Deutsch and Xin Hu

In the world of culture making, the notion of practice has expanded to include not just the artist or maker, but those who work in administrative capacities to support a myriad of cultural economics. From the behemoth museums, to independent and artist run spaces—the trajectory of an arts administrator’s career often evolves as a nonlinear path, providing for unexpected and productive reflection.

In dialogue with Franklin Sirmans, the director of the Pérez Art Museum of Miami (PAMM), his path seems particularly notable. Sirmans, first known for curatorial work and publications, shares with emerge how his background shapes his directorial style.

 

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artist Fab 5 Freddy and Franklin Sirmans, courtesy of facebook.com/perezartmuseummiami filter by Prisma “aviator”

 

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CAITLIN DEUTSCH: We wanted to start with your new position, and were interested in how the opportunity at PAMM came about. Could you speak a little about the specifics of how you saw this opportunity being distinctive?

FRANKLIN SIRMANS: I had done an exhibition in 2009 that came to PAMM called NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith. A lot of that show was about the cultural and geographic specificity of Miami and its role as a kind of center for looking at the Americas. That show was only about artists from the Americas and was very much concerned with what happens when you take European and American traditions and mix them with the native traditions of the Americas. I was drawn to Miami being the center point of these traditions in this highly unique way.

[In 2015] I’d known this job was available. There was a series of open positions, if you will, in museums last summer. There are only so many search firms that these institutions use. I had been in contact with a couple of them, and was well aware of the process at that point. But I was most excited, obviously, about being here.

XIN HU: Do you see your work as the museum director as part of an expanded curatorial practice?

FS: I don’t know if I can say that. I think there is good reason that directors have been chosen from curatorial positions—it gives you an irreplaceable way of knowing about the heart and soul of the museum, from the perspective of the collections, exhibitions, and programs. But, it is very different. That starts with the fundraising element. It’s the central role of the director in a way it is not to the curator.

CD: Yes, the focus on fundraising. How do you personally go about finding the balance between the fundraising expectations and the artistic mission of the museum that you are spearheading? On the day to day, what kind of negotiations do you need to make?

FS: One of the nice things about coming here was I knew that there was already this strong curatorial team, and I should add, an impressive education department. I already felt very much aware and interested in the programs that have been a part of this institution. In that way, it was the right context to jump away from the curatorial work because I already felt so much a part of the conversation taking place.

For instance, when I arrived, the main exhibition on view was Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, an artist I’d known for twenty years. A smaller show at the same time was focused on Firelei Báez, who I had worked with the year before in New Orleans. And then there are the shows coming to fruition now, the Doris Salcedo and the upcoming Jean Michel Basquiat, artists whose work I’d been connected with in prominent ways previous to moving to Miami. It honestly felt like there were a lot of things already happening here that I felt very close to.

CD: You mentioned education. How is that work integral to the kind of narratives you are developing for PAMM’s fundraising efforts? And more broadly, how do you see education as part of the work of PAMM? Especially as its reputation evolves both in and outside of Miami.

FS: Education is absolutely integral to everything we do. I don’t think it’s crazy to say what we do as museums in the twenty-first century has a whole lot to do with education and art-based learning. Schools don’t do that. In Miami they can come here for that. In part because of our relationship with the Knight Foundation we’ve been able to support a robust education department. We have kids in here every morning and do a lot of programming in order to get them in here and into the galleries where they are using art as a tool for thinking. It’s part of our entire DNA. We’re not just a place to come and look at something. We’re a place for the arts to be a catalyst for something else.

XH: There is a current discourse around site-specific art. How do you see exhibitions and art fairs being site specific? Can they be?

FS: Site specificity is important. For us we can’t help but think about it. Starting with the building, it’s so distinct. Then there’s our relationship with the environment. We’re in the city and simultaneously looking out at the bay, invoking questions of how we relate to the surrounding geography. Ideas you can’t help but contemplate when you sit outside our museum.

It’s also important in how we engage with artists because we are so much a place for contemporary art. We have this incredible opportunity to have artists respond to our building and site in our first gallery downstairs, which is used more or less for exactly this kind of conversation. Each one of those shows is built off a conversation, with an artist, that we develop, as they take in the site. It’s not just taking work that already exists and putting in play.

CD: Are you facilitating or supporting off-site programming? And how does that relate to these notions of site specificity?

FS: We have a program called Inside|Out, again part of the funding from the Knight Foundation. It came out of an initiative at the Detroit Institute of Art. That program allows us to branch out to other parts of the city. Again, through the Education Department, we as an institution are engaging with other parts of the city and the youth of Miami. In those partnerships, we see the conversation continuing outside of our walls.

CD: Reflecting on this notion of branching out, how do you translate aspects of your work with a project such as Prospect New Orleans, which is so much about unexpected collaboration and being in the city, to your work at the museum? How do you try and reignite some of the experimentation afforded by an event like Prospect that’s lost when you move into the institution?

FS: Absolutely, and that’s when you see us doing more projects out and about in our city. It’s inevitable that we’d lose some of that experimentation. One of the things that excited me about Prospect was at the time I had been working on exhibitions that were meant to be inside the space of the museum. Prospect allowed me to take into consideration art in profoundly different ways. I love that balance. In programming we can think about not just our building, but how we relate to the entire community.

CD: The education work seems to be a driving force behind your institution’s current work, especially as it relates to community engagement. What does success look like for these programs?

FS: When we talk about success, especially in terms of education, it’s going to relate to the long term. Needless to say, we can’t see everything immediately, but that’s what we are trying to do. For example, our Teen Council was recently recognized by the ICA Boston at their national Teen Convening and we were also recently named a finalist for a national program award for Brick x Brick, again a program that has us outside the confines of the museum and working with neighborhood partners.

The thing I think is important about that work in connection to this conversation comes back to Miami. It’s a very diverse city in every way. Brick x Brick is a program designed specifically for at-risk teens. It gets us into the neighborhoods that don’t normally come to the museum or might not even know we are here. It’s really about how art fits into a teen conversation. We use art and design to introduce them to something else and bring together perhaps disparate conversations. This work hopefully has repercussions in other ways, not easily imagined. It’s not just about learning about an object, but how to think and how to navigate life.

XH: What kind of insight did your publication history give you in regards to your current role?

FS: I guess when I was your age, I was trying to write, and doing exactly what you are doing. The process for me came down to thinking through writing. That was the first way to learn about contemporary art in particular. I had taken a 101 and some other specific classes, like The Armory Show and Dada, but I hadn’t had a class on contemporary while at Wesleyan, so I just wrote about it. I worked for magazines and publications before museums. When I got to the Center for the Arts I was in publications. From there I went to Flash Art, which was again was about journalism rather than curatorial. That is the base that I stand on. Being at Dia early on, I was part of a publications department that was fortunate to work on discussions on contemporary culture that always made the conversation bigger. It was always about different forms of art, music, scholarship poetry, etc… That’s my background—always maintain the importance of publications. PAMM has been incredible on publications, doing books on younger artists who might be having their first book. And great publications as well on more established artists. It is integral to delivering what actually happens in the museum. To do that in a way that we do, that is to say bilingually, is pretty impressive I think.

  • with Caitlin Deutsch and Xin Hu

    Franklin Sirmans:
    http://curatorsintl.org/collaborators/franklin_sirmans
    https://twitter.com/mfsirmans?lang=en

    Xin Hu:
    https://soundcloud.com/migrationstories/xin-hu-with-nancy-valla

    Caitlin Deutsch:
    http://www.caitlindeutsch.com/