Miami is an interesting place. People like to call it transient—perhaps it helps them defend themselves in social settings of the dinner party-variety, thrown specifically to honor out-of-towners, who wonder just what it is that [people] do around “these parts.” If Miami was a guest at said dinner party, as a matter of fact, it would be the young child, a third of everyone else’s age, sitting in the play room, overhearing conversations, taking mental notes, trying to neatly tie her shoes between pangs of growing pains; because Miami is young. Real young. And just like is true of any burgeoning youngster of a city, it’s the people; those vested in nurturing the growth, that leave their indelible mark—let’s call them stretch marks, visible representations of growth—on the body of land and in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
A year ago this October, Miami was blessed with a new stretch mark-maker, Franklin Sirmans. Sirmans, who came in as successor to Thom Collins as director of The Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), comes by way of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where he was department head and curator. Prior the resume is in-step with what one would expect from someone who PAMM trustee, Dennis Scholl, told The New York Times “is clearly a rock star in the contemporary art world.” In the year and change since he’s been helming the museum a new kind of conversation has been stirring in the city. PAMM definitely leads the chatter in its part; and Sirmans caught up with Toys for Boys to share a little bit about the landscape, how he sees things evolving and the role young Miami is playing in the future of the contemporary art game, given all the impending changes: “Between the new and existing cultural institutions like the Bass Museum reopening, the exciting things happening at MOCA, North Miami in its completely different incarnation, what’s happening at The Arsht Center which has been here for ten years, the Science Museum which is set to open next spring…there’s this sense of flowering and change.” The changes of which he speaks are parts of the growth spurts that promise to make Miami a place to really be reckoned with, and not just in the art world. “I [also] think a lot is changing at the academic institutions; UM has a new president and FIU has a graduate department in Art and Art History; Miami Dade College is opening the Miami Fashion Institute —they’re relatively recent events and over the course of the last year, we have been able to experience, first hand, the ground work for culture to grow here.”
There truly have been cycles of literal and physical growth in the city and the looming question for Sirmans is what are we actually providing? “That’s the mark of a city that’s developing,” he says; “that it has cultural institutions that offer something else to people’s lives.” In Miami, that’s being molded within this moment. The PAMM building has only been here for three years and he’s has a real hand in shaping what it will be for the future; especially given the amount of children-focused programming available at the museum—something that didn’t exist last decade when museums were considered less than kid friendly. “There’s a big focus on children here,” Sirmans explains. Something like this could be the thing that ignites the fire within a child; that sparks a forever interest in art. For Sirmans that moment that allowed him to see things differently happened in high school over Claude Monet’s, ‘Water Lilies.’ And it happens over and over still. It happened with Jean-Michele Basquiat. It happened with Cy Twombly. He manages to maintain that magic within him and he creates a space that’s conducive to magic moments for the youth that visits PAMM by taking on both “ the traditional role of a place you visit to look at things but also a more 21st century role as a place of activity, a place for dialogue, a place for learning, a place where children can come get an experience that’s more arts-based than what they get a school.”
In terms of talking about the art of our time, PAMM aims to be the focal point of that conversation. “Because the city is made up the way that it is, it provides a model for others to look at; just in terms of language, we have city hall that engages in three different languages and—that’s probably more like what other American cities are going to look like in the future—we are reflecting that as a museum dedicated to International Contemporary art.” Now, there are many of those around the world and most have been earning their stripes for quite some time; so how does he plan to stand out? The answer for Sirmans lies in staying true; in reflecting where [we] are. “We do that from the inside, out,” he explains. “Latin America and the Caribbean is an area where we need to be the best…I just came back from London and I was in a huge Wilfredo Lam exhibition at Tate Modern and PAMM has a painting there from 1929; and it’s coming back here, to Miami. I think that people recognize that not only is the museum a reflection of the city’s growth but it’s also a foundation for a discussion related to work that comes out of Latin America and the Caribbean and what its relation is to other contemporary forums and we have a very special place in that conversation.”
Similarly special to Sirmans is the museum’s exhibition program which he shares has been established from the get go, in the mid-1990’s when the institution started collecting. “We reflect that moment that was one of a new internationalism in terms of contemporary art—a globalist approach was often discussed and so we are particularly strong with artists from around the world—that’s our foundation. Our foundation is in a certain degree of diversity; it’s just natural to be in this place.” That diversity is about more than location of origin, it’s also about dabbling; dipping one’s toe in different ponds, if you will. This stems from Sirmans’ relation to contemporary art as a space where anything can be discussed. From fashion and film to dance and music, Sirmans has explored it all in his work, “and it happens to dovetail perfectly with the foundation and what’s been happening in this museum.”
Film and video are of particular interest at PAMM where their auditorium provides a stunning space for screenings and interactive discussions. Recently the space acted as backdrop for the reception of Barry Jenkins’ story of self-discovery, ‘Moonlight’, which actually takes place in a Miami of a different time. A darker time. The idea is to engage in the conversation. They also just wrapped on showing Stan Douglas’ work; a six-hour long video improvisation of cinema and time-based media that while also touching on identity-based struggles, aimed to testify to the unifying power of music. As far as fashion goes, it’s something that he’s on to. “I have been talking to Public School about their relationship to Miami.” Public School is a brand lauded in the fashion world that was started by twosome Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne shortly after Chow opened Miami Beach-based Arrive boutique in 2005. “I’m also particularly interested in a conversation with photographer Bruce Weber who has been a part of that industry for a very long time but from the point of view of an artist.” He mentions the Narcisco Rodriguez exhibition happening at the Frost Art Museum at FIU, as a reference to Miami’s history with fashion before touching on what perhaps will forever be the most poignant reference, Gianni Versace, and suggesting that “there’s a lot to explore in that regard; and I think we’re the right place to do that because we can do it from a place of leading the conversation from contemporary art. We’re not trying to be something else; but contemporary art speaks broadly enough to have something interesting to say about all those other things.”
Other things indeed; in 2018 Sirmans is bringing Fútbol: The Beautiful Game show to Miami. “We have a lot of people who come from different places where soccer means a lot more than it does in other cities in this country. We are a city where we have a North American Soccer League team and we’re talking to people who want to have a Major League Soccer team and it’s a very interesting history, so why not explore that through the space of contemporary art?” It’s fascinating actually how closely he’s got his ear to the ground. There isn’t a space of interest to the community that he isn’t looking to tap in the effort to draw in the malleable minds, hungry for knowledge, eager to know more. And he does it by breaking down perceived barriers of the museum concept to make sure people all feel like they have ownership—it belongs to us all a little.
“We don’t know how we choose to move around in the world, but I’ve always felt that the museum could be this place where we could talk about everything; an empowering space for people just to think, to be able to see things better; I want it to be the active space for those conversations to take place; and I feel like everyone should have a stake in that conversation. That’s the kind of space we want to be and that’s what we can be.” Post-passionate dialogue Sirmans explains that even the architecture is suggestive of engagement. “It’s not a fortress;” he explains, “I think it engenders a sense of possibility and ownership.” That sense of possibility he talks about is in part due to the indoor-outdoor flow that exists not just because of the expansive terraces but also because of the use of glass that yields water views from almost everywhere. The building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects, Herzog and de Meuron, embodies an architecture that he says “is based off of a Miami vernacular,” explaining that it’s design is meant to closely reference Stiltsville, a grouping of mini-houses on pylon stilts out on Biscayne Bay—a fact that oozes with nostalgia for most Miamians who have visited Stiltsville, by boat, many a time.
And while Miami locals and those who form the group of transient supporters have much to look forward to under Sirmans’ watchfull eye at PAMM, we also eagerly await the one week a year where people from around the world descend on Miami as an art hub for Art Basel Miami Beach, Design Miami and the surrounding fairs, for its special programming and slew of one-off happenings. At PAMM they’re taking that opportunity to exercise their position to powerfully present artists in a greater spotlight. Especially artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, which Sirmans is adamant is the museum’s responsibility, given its proximity: “When you walk in the doors right now the first piece you see is by Carmen Herrera, a Cuban artist who has an exhibition up at the Whitney Museum, currently; we just do certain artists really well. And Julio Le Parc is one of those.”
Le Parc will be the exhibition on display during Art Basel at the PAMM this year. Born in Argentina and having lived in Paris for the last fifty-something years, he’s a pioneer in kinetic and optical art. The artist, who’s featured in this issue, embraces traditions from global influences that result in what Sirmans describes as a one of a kind exhibition:
“You’re going to get spectacle at some points; like literally walking through room-sized installations. [There are] sculptures that are illuminated so that you don’t even have any artificial light. You will have a whole bodily feel walking through this exhibition; and it’s going to be phenomenal—it’s going to be a deep scholarship that even people who work in the art world are going to be blown away because they haven’t seen this much work in one place.”
Coordinated by Julio Le Parc scholar, Estrellita Brosky and PAMM chief curator, Tobias Ostrander the exhibition promises to be quite remarkable for people to walk through and to experience themselves as opposed to just visually enjoying a wall-mounted work of art. “With this exhibition,” says Sirmans, “it’s about both how the work interacts with you and how you interact with the work.” How very PAMM, don’t you think?