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Growing Pains: Franklin Sirmans and the Future of the Pérez Art Museum Miami

PAMM director Franklin Sirmans at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. ANGEL VALENTIN/COURTESY PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI

PAMM director Franklin Sirmans at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

ANGEL VALENTIN/COURTESY PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI

There are major streets in downtown Miami that have been effectively hollowed out by development, impossible to traverse and made useless in the name of progress. It is a city of luxury high-rises and scaffolding. On a recent trip, at my hotel—under construction itself just five years ago, rising from the site of downtown’s first luxury hotel, the Royal Palm, completed in 1897—the receptionist checking me in said she had a room available with a “beautiful view of the city.” It looked out on another construction zone.

The Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum Miami of Miami-Dade County occupies an important position in the changes downtown. PAMM is situated at the top of the former Bicentennial Park, which was, until quite recently, a place of such disuse that the nearby station of the Metromover—the free public transport around downtown—simply shuttered altogether. PAMM began in 1984 as the Center for the Fine Arts before becoming a collecting institution in 1996 and changing its name to the Miami Art Museum. In 2010 construction began on a new Herzog & de Meuron building on land donated by the county in the park along Biscayne Bay. Though an additional $100 million of taxpayer money helped pay for the construction project, the institution was renamed—with a certain amount of dissent from the board of trustees and the city—after Jorge Pérez, the billionaire real-estate mogul, who offered $20 million in cash and $20 million worth of art from his own collection, by far the largest private donation in the museum’s history.

PAMM, with 120,000 square feet of interior space, lush hanging gardens, and special architectural tricks to protect the building from flooding during hurricane season, almost instantly revitalized what is now known as Museum Park, and the Metromover station reopened, though certain glaring ironies remain. When I visited one afternoon in late October, docked in the bay was the Attessa IV, a 332-foot yacht (and 2011 World Superyacht Award winner, according to a sign) registered in the Cayman Islands. Nearby is another horrifying construction zone—the future home of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, in the shadow of which a family of European tourists was picnicking. Elsewhere in the park, a homeless man clothed in nothing but basketball shorts was aggressively kicking a trash can, and a woman was seated alone on a bench, staring off into the distance and holding a sign that said, “Jesus loves you. He is coming. Repent.”

East facade of PAMM, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. DANIEL AZOULAY/COURTESY PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI

East facade of PAMM, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

DANIEL AZOULAY/COURTESY PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI

Ask anyone invested in the future of PAMM, however, and the most positive development in downtown Miami in a long time was the arrival in October of Franklin Sirmans, 46, the museum’s new director. Sirmans, a former curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a hard road ahead of him. PAMM is at the forefront of Miami’s still fairly new philanthropic community devoted to arts and culture, but the museum’s financial future remains open-ended.

In fact, the environment Sirmans has just walked into is steeped in uncertainties. There is a beautiful building that many believe doesn’t have a permanent collection to match. (Sirmans’s predecessor, Thom Collins, who led PAMM for five years and oversaw construction on that building, left in March to head up the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.) The museum’s endowment now rests somewhere around $20 million, according to board members, with a goal of $70 million on the horizon. There is no hard deadline to raise the additional $50 million, but also no concrete plan that anyone I spoke with was willing to disclose.

Sirmans must also deal with lingering fallout from the renaming of the museum. In 2011 Mary Frank, a board member who had been the president of the Miami Art Museum, started a public campaign called “MAM not PAM” and took out newspaper ads bemoaning that the museum had “sold off” its name to Pérez in exchange for his donation, which itself hardly matched the institution’s public funding. “The present name of the Miami Art Museum accurately identifies its primary benefactors: the citizens of Miami-Dade County,” the ads read. Frank eventually left the board, along with three other trustees.

“I would say that when somebody offers a museum the largest cultural gift ever made in our community, and the largest Hispanic cultural gift ever made in our country, it’s the kind of moment you have to embrace,” said Dennis Scholl, a board member and the chair of the committee that hired Sirmans. “I think that the institution made the absolute correct decision in accepting Jorge’s gift.”

Pérez, for his part, has promised more of his renowned collection of Latin American art down the line. And for what it’s worth, the museum’s neighbors the Frost (formerly the Miami Science Museum) and the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Carnival Center) were both renamed after single donors with no real argument. But one concern the PAMM board must face is whether naming the institution for Pérez will prevent other donors from stepping forward because any contribution hereafter would be overshadowed. When asked about this, Scholl simply repeated himself, slower this time and pausing occasionally for emphasis.

“The largest. Cultural gift. In our community. And the largest. Hispanic cultural gift. In our country,” he said. “Full stop.”

Noah Purifoy, Untitled, 1967, at LACMA’s current show “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.” ©ROBERT WEDEMEYER/©NOAH PURIFOY FOUNDATION/COURTESY LACMA

Noah Purifoy, Untitled, 1967, at LACMA’s current show “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.”

©ROBERT WEDEMEYER/©NOAH PURIFOY FOUNDATION/COURTESY LACMA

The hope is that Sirmans, whom the board, upon hiring him, celebrated as “one of the leading voices in contemporary art,” will be able to persuade additional deep-pocketed patrons to come forward. His reputation, however, is as a curator and critic, not a fundraiser. In 2010 Sirmans joined LACMA, where he was head of the contemporary-art department. By then, he’d already developed a reputation as an astute organizer of exhibitions, with ambitious ideas and a good eye. He could convincingly bridge the gap between highbrow and pop culture, helping to reinterpret the art world’s fairly stodgy ideas of canonization along the way. The show that kicked off his career was “One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art,” which he co-curated with Lydia Yee at the Bronx Museum in 2002, and which explored hip-hop’s influence on artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Chris Ofili.

Sirmans grew up in Harlem and came of age at a time when the burgeoning fields of graffiti, dance, and rap were “all coming together,” as he told me. We were talking on his fifth day on the job at PAMM, sitting in his still sparsely furnished office. Sirmans’s father, a doctor, collected work by African American artists, among them the postwar abstractionists Ed Clark and Al Loving, as well as Harlem Renaissance painters like Palmer Hayden and Hale Woodruff, and the 19th-century tonalist Edward Mitchell Bannister. He would take his son to the nearby Studio Museum in Harlem. “I went to openings, often reluctantly, but nonetheless,” Sirmans said. Of the works in his father’s collection, he had an affinity for Hayden, though “I didn’t think that deeply about it, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “But it was there.”

A turning point for him came in 1985. Sirmans was still in high school when he saw a suit-clad, barefoot Basquiat on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, for a story called “New Art, New Money,” which also discussed Basquiat’s peers Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, and Francesco Clemente. “It’s almost a cliché,” Sirmans told me, “but it was like, ‘Oh, this is that in-between space.’ It was in between the kids painting their names on the bus and the train and those older artists I was aware of because of my father. That cover was an interesting moment. It was a way to come in, from a generation that wasn’t so far away from me.” He studied art history at Wesleyan, where he wrote his thesis on Basquiat.

From there, Sirmans worked in the publications department at the Dia Art Foundation, and then became the international editor of the magazine Flash Art’s English-language edition, working out of Milan, where he was “the only person in the office who spoke the English mother tongue.” Back in the States, he taught at Princeton and put together exhibitions on the side before taking a job as curator at the Menil Collection in Houston. There, he curated a massive traveling show called “NeoHooDoo,” which was inspired by African American writer Ishmael Reed and dealt with spirituality and ritual in contemporary art.

Franklin Sirmans with a group of participating Prospect.3 artists during opening weekend. COURTESY PROSPECT NEW ORLEANS

Franklin Sirmans with a group of participating Prospect.3 artists during opening weekend.

COURTESY PROSPECT NEW ORLEANS

Later, at LACMA, Sirmans developed a name for himself, becoming a hometown hero in the Los Angeles art world. One of his final shows while on staff at the museum focused on the work of Noah Purifoy and coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots (Purifoy’s earliest sculptures were made from debris left in the wake of the rioting). It was a rare exhibition, simultaneously concerned with local history and demonstrating the importance of an under-appreciated artist. (The show was also poignantly representative of the wider world. Purifoy’s work has a sad timeliness, carrying new significance following protests from Ferguson to Baltimore.) While working at LACMA, Sirmans also became the artistic director of Prospect, the New Orleans biennial, spread out across 18 venues in the city. The biennial’s third edition, in 2014, instantly made Sirmans well-known outside of L.A. The question now is whether his curatorial expertise will bring forth donors.

“That’s an issue in our museum world right now,” said Michael Govan, LACMA’s director. “No one wants to hire a fundraiser as a director because the most important aspect of being a director of an institution is to have a sense of vision and passion about where programs, collecting, and community all intersect. That is the first and primary responsibility he’ll have. He’ll have to add fundraising to that, which is integral. Museums have tried to separate the administration and the artistic direction, and it doesn’t work well. The two have to exist together.”

Put another way, $50 million is “a lot of money to raise,” as Brooke Davis Anderson, the executive director of Prospect, told me. But Anderson praised Sirmans’s fundraising abilities, saying he had played a crucial role in helping Prospect raise $4 million in just 18 months to support the biennial, which by the time of its third edition was already cash-strapped and behind schedule. (Prospect is now officially a triennial.) Anderson recalled that at the opening of Prospect.3 in the fall of 2014, and for the following three months that the show was on view, whenever she would ask visitors what brought them there, “Uniformly, people said, ‘Well, Franklin. I’m here for Franklin.’ ”

Works by Alma Thomas and Huguette Caland installed at New Orleans Museum of Art for “Prospect.3: Notes for Now.” ©SCOTT MCCROSSEN/FIVE65 DESIGN

Works by Alma Thomas and Huguette Caland installed at New Orleans Museum of Art for “Prospect.3: Notes for Now.”

©SCOTT MCCROSSEN/FIVE65 DESIGN

In cultural terms, compared to New York, and even Los Angeles, Miami is a new town, and its increasingly crowded field of museums reflects that. “Miami is 250 years younger than Philadelphia, for example,” Scholl told me. “We haven’t had the kind of established cultural institutions that come from many more generations of philanthropy. Miami is only beginning to have these significant patronage events, because it’s so young.” He listed PAMM, the Frost, and the Arsht as examples of the rise of “large-scale philanthropy for culture in Miami.” (“Let’s make a deal that 250 years from now we’ll meet up and you’ll see how we’re doing philanthropically,” he added.) Further complicating fundraising matters, though, is the fact that the major Miami institutions—PAMM, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Wynwood, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami—are all focused on contemporary art, and are ostensibly in competition with each other for new donors.

“And the likelihood is that they’re all going to feature contemporary art going forward,” said Craig Robins, a member of PAMM’s board. “It’s unlikely that we’re going to have an unbelievable modern collection, or even a postwar collection. But I think we can build a global dialogue, and one of the great collections of our time. I think Franklin’s presence moves Miami forward.” Robins said PAMM will grow into an important museum “as long as Jorge and the board really step up and help Franklin.”

In fact, PAMM’s future may rest on Sirmans being a new kind of museum director, a curator with a critical background who doesn’t shy away from marginalized histories and artists. When PAMM hired Sirmans, the Miami Times, the city’s historically black newspaper, published an article with the news-flash headline “Black Man to Head PAMM.” The article cited some grim statistics from the Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which concluded that African Americans comprise 4 percent of the leadership roles at museums in this country, with the employment figures only increasing in jobs dealing with security, facilities, HR, and finance. Asked about that headline, Sirmans said, “There’s so much to worry about and things we need to do here that I don’t worry about that as much.”

But Sirmans is hopeful about the museum’s future, and about Miami. “I don’t want to make silly comparisons,” he told me, “but people talk about L.A. in the ’60s and that feeling of possibility, and here there’s a real sense of being at the beginning of something.”

M.H. Miller is a senior editor at ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 66 under the title “Growing Pains.”

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