Franklin Sirmans with Hunter Braithwaite
HUNTER BRAITHWAITE (MIAMI RAIL): You started your art career as a writer. How did the way you approached contemporary art as a journalist at Flash Art, ArtAsiaPacific, and elsewhere inform how you look at art as a curator?
FRANKLIN SIRMANS: I think a lot of us use words and writing as tools for figuring stuff out. Writing can be a great bridge to ideas and—especially with art criticism—to learning about artists. In the most basic sense, writing was an introduction to curating because putting together different artists within the same frame, or article, is the same thing as curating. It’s not that revelatory—I used to talk to Francesco Bonami about this at Flash Art—it’s just a different kind of framing device.
When I was working on publications at Dia Center for the Arts in New York, and already thinking in that publications mode, I started writing for ARTnews and other New York underground papers and magazines that don’t exist anymore. It was a way to have an entrée into art, into other artists and other people, as opposed to just, you know, standing there. I was fortunate to have a system of support that let me write about art in places where there was no visual art coverage per se, like One Word (the precursor to Vibe), Ace, Downbeat, and Shade (copublished by Sheryl Huggins and Beverly Williams). Because I was writing off the “art world” grid, I could say what I wanted and formulate my own ideas. And so, thinking about the idea of putting artists together in an article was a way of thinking about a group exhibition. You can go home and think of four artists and put them together for various reasons, but chances are, at a young age, most galleries or museums are not going to give you that opportunity.
RAIL: It seems like accessibility was an important factor in the type of writing that you were doing then and in the type of writing that you were reading. Were there any specific writers who provided you with that entry point?
SIRMANS: Basically I was writing for readers who had not seen the show and probably would not see it and who probably didn’t know the artists being discussed. Perfect readers for art criticism.
I was reading and admiring others who were probably writing about music like Joan Morgan (at Wesleyan), Dream Hampton, Scott Poulson-Bryant, and perhaps most importantly Greg Tate. Also Calvin Reid, he was at Publishers Weekly and had deep connections at Art in America. And Joshua Decter, who is a great scholar and critic. From Tate I learned how to, well, I can’t say I learned a damn thing, because all I tried to do at a certain point was emulate him and the rhythm of his writing. But Calvin and Josh gave me opportunities to write for publications they were affiliated with when they had no reason to do so, other than that I was young and kind of thirsty.
I read Peter Schjeldahl like it was the Bible, like everywhere. Seven Days and the Village Voice, of course. To me, a combination of him and Greg Tate was, like, the essence.
RAIL: You recently featured Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2014’s Prospect.3 in New Orleans, but this is far from the first time that you’ve worked with him. Some curators tend to bring an artist with them over the years, reapproaching the work in different ways, at different moments. Is he that artist for you?
SIRMANS: He’s definitely one of them. I wrote my thesis on him at Wesleyan, and I actually had the opportunity to expand on a chronology that I started with the thesis when the Whitney was doing the first retrospective in 1993, so I got to work with Richard Marshall in that capacity. And then in 2005 we co-curated the show at the Brooklyn Museum, but before that, in 1999, Tony Shafrazi did a really thick book to go along with his gallery show and we had several essays in there. That was the first time I did a really extensive interview with Fab Five Freddy and got to work on texts by Glenn O’Brien, Robert Farris Thompson, Jeffrey Deitch, and Francesco Pellizzi.
RAIL: Have you found yourself responding to different elements of Basquiat’s work over the years?
SIRMANS: I think there were two entry points. One was that I was exposed to some artists at an early age through my father. These were predominantly artists who worked with an abstract vocabulary. So, in seeing Basquiat for the first time, it was like seeing your immediate peer, your generation, as opposed to a generation that was different and apart from you. And so the work spoke to me in a way that was very immediate, in a way that those older artists perhaps did not.
Secondly, here was this person combining words and images, coming very much from the point of view of poetry—which I was into—and bringing that into the conversation with images.
RAIL: Who were some of these older artists that you were exposed to?
SIRMANS: Ed Clark, Al Loving. I worked for Ed Clark for a bit, cleaning up his studio when I was in college. Joe Overstreet—a bunch of guys showing with Kenkeleba House or June Kelly Gallery in New York. Nanette Carter— that was all part of that conversation.
RAIL: PAMM’s former director Thomas Collins wrote in this magazine that you were one of the most talented curators of your generation and that many of your exhibitions and publications were “designed to redress the omissions of the Eurocentric modernist art-historical canon, telling the stories and presenting the artistic achievements of significant yet lesser-known women artists and artists of color from around the world.” How do you respond to that?
SIRMANS: Well, coming from Thom, I feel incredibly honored that he would say such a thing. That’s pretty big, I don’t know how much I can take for myself. Coming from somebody who did big, amazing shows on Faith Ringgold, Renée Green, and Louise Bourgeois, I’m not surprised at some of our shared interests. So yeah, it makes me blush, I guess. But in the context of now, as someone who has had so much directorial experience already, Thom, I am just thankful.
RAIL: How do you think these projects will function in Miami, a city that is traditionally outside or on the cusp of that Eurocentric canon?
SIRMANS: I think different people will always assign us as what they perceive, when the reality is almost always much broader. But to me, we’re PAMM, and we’re in Miami, so we have an allegiance to where we are, in the same way that LACMA functions in LA. Programming will certainly be reflective of the diversity of Miami. It already has been. I’m looking to build on that foundation.
RAIL: Are there any exhibitions or any specific artists that you’ve seen at PAMM that have signaled some sort of possibility or potential?
SIRMANS: There are tons. I think of somebody like Wifredo Lam. There’s a painting of his in the collection that takes us back to a modern mode, to a modern period, and gives us a foundation to move forward. There is the great Beatriz Milhazes exhibition. And the show that just opened of works by Teresita Fernández, who was born and raised in Miami and is someone I think is important to our trajectory. There’s a great work in the collection by her. There’s an extensive group of works from Purvis Young, who is somebody who is up on the walls at LACMA, and was also born and raised in Miami. And then, historically, going back to Lam, I think we can build a foundation around certain artists, like Gego, as well. I would throw her into that conversation as I would Carmen Herrera and, more recently, Doris Salcedo.
RAIL: Have you crossed paths with anybody from PAMM’s curatorial department before?
SIRMANS: I’ve known Tobias Ostrander’s work for a long time, and of his deep presence in Mexico. And Diana Nawi, we’ve known each other for a while and I was super aware of her work at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Her Iman Issa show was phenomenal. I can’t wait to see her Nari Ward show. René Morales was at the museum when my exhibition NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith traveled there in 2008–09, which was a way of thinking about art from Miami, including the Miami artist José Bedia, who’s up on the walls at PAMM right now. So I’ve known of Réne’s work, and his relationship to the institution’s history is phenomenal. And then María Elena Ortiz is doing great things in the region especially. She has a show on view now with Firelei Báez, who was in Prospect. What a great team to think about some of these ideas and about our relationship to the international art world from the home base of Miami.
RAIL: What are some of the challenges you’re expecting to face in this new role?
SIRMANS: It’s a transition. As excited as I am, and as much as I’m looking forward to it, I still have to recognize that it’s a transition, so I’ll have to concentrate on things in a different way in terms of fundraising. As curators, we go out there and sell the show. Now it’s about selling the whole vision, getting people excited about the direction of the museum—the many things it has to offer as opposed to just your one show. The museum in the twenty-first century is not the museum of the twentieth. Can we bridge our viewers between those times? I think, yes!
RAIL: Exhibition programming aside, so much is going on there. The education initiatives are so important right now, since arts education has been eviscerated.
SIRMANS: We have to recognize how museums have become a focal point for exactly that, the nexus between education and entertainment. In Los Angeles, you have so much art, and relationships to art, that have been cut out of school curriculums, so the museum is the only place where that happens. In Miami, we have an extensive program alongside initiatives that are part of the school systems. I think that’s a really important aspect of the twenty-first-century museum—what does it do for us as a tool of learning? Not just for kids, but for everybody.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer and editor based in Memphis, Tennessee.