The Road To: An Interview with Franklin Sirmans

Published Daily Serving

June 6, 2012

Issues of under-financing, administrative inadequacy and lack of community support are some of the problems that can be found currently in multiple organizations in New Orleans. Prospect New Orleans, a nascent biennial founded in 2008 has had its share of these issues. However, new leadership and the selection of an artistic director whose passion and interests jive with many of the cultural and social issues in the city suggest a new maturity and professionalism to be found in the upcoming edition.

Presently the Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Franklin Sirmans has taken on an additional role: Artistic Director for Prospect.3 in New Orleans. With recent news of the Biennial getting pushed back a year to 2014, this time presents a good opportunity to reflect with Sirmans on how he would like to see Prospect.3 define itself.

Franklin Sirmans. Photo by Julia Galdo.

Tori Bush: So, when did the opportunity to curate Prospect.3 arise and how does it relate to the work you’ve done at LACMA, the Menil Collection and Dia Center for the Arts?

Franklin Sirmans: The opportunity was presented after coming down to meet some members of the board via Dan Cameron, whose work I have admired. In some ways Prospect.3 might coincide with some of what I do at LACMA because that is where I am living and thinking and working closely with my colleagues Rita Gonzalez and Christine Y. Kim, who will advise me for Prospect.3, which, in many ways, I see as an extension of our everyday work.

Dia and the Menil are formative places for me, so the effect they will have might be there but far less noticeable than my work here at LACMA. Different things can, and have been done at those institutions keeping in mind the varied needs of three very different places covering this country, geographically and conceptually: New York, Houston, and Los Angeles. I try to be hyperaware of my surroundings. A show like NeoHooDoo played differently in New York, Houston and Miami though the overall framework was the same in each place. The resonance was different and that is the sort of texture I am interested in.

TB: New Orleans can be a politically savvy and wonderfully proud place. I was wondering how sensitive you are to that and how you will take the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana into account?

FS: I’ve never done an international biennial before so I have no personal blueprint but I anticipate a show that has a good deal to say about where it is. This region and its immediate surroundings within the southern United States, more specifically (and affectionately, at least in Houston, called the 3rd Coast), the entire Gulf of Mexico region excites the hell out of me and has been a subtext of some of my work in the past.

At this point I’m wide open, not letting any theme guide me, just trying to listen and look to artists and the world around us at the moment. My desire is to spend some time getting the lay of the land, meeting people and figuring out venues early on, hopefully by the end of the year. After that, we shall see.

TB: Recently, there have been some discussions around the lack of site specific installations in Prospect.2 which had been so impressive in Prospect 1. How do you plan on integrating the profound amount of architectural and historical space of the city into your installations?

FS: I think site specificity is an integral part of any biennial type of exhibition where the city itself is a living host and really the backdrop and conceptual background of the exhibition and this can happen in varied ways. It was refreshing to see the last Venice Biennale make the city a conceptual part of its main exhibition, Illuminations. Three of the very first works encountered in this biennial of contemporary art were 16th century paintings by the Venetian artist Tintoretto.

Tintoretto. The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark, 1562-66; The Last Supper 1592-94. Shown on view at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

In this case, the selection of New Orleans by Dan Cameron was very specific. It is a unique city, in so many ways. We all know that it is the birthplace of jazz; it is a pivotal place in America’s multicultural heritage; and Prospect began, in part because of Katrina and I will go absolutely no further in trying define a place I only know as an outsider. The foundation of Prospect is very closely tied to a reading of the city as integral to the art showcased in its biennial. I hope to explore those roots in selecting and presenting artworks and artists who are also interested in that history.

Back to the question. A tough question for me right now. The New Orleans contemporary art scene is raw and energetic, judging from the energy that comes from the galleries and the artists’ initiatives that are in St. Claude in particular. One could imagine doing a show that embraces a certain guerilla style representative of the city and looks solely to the inspiration that artists might find in the nooks and crannies of the city. But, on the other hand, there is the desire to show an American-based biennial that also embraces in part the language of the international biennial exhibition and thus there are certain traditional spaces that will also play an integral role in delivering some sort of a cohesive thematic around the exhibition. To be more specific to your question, I don’t know. It’s hard to say right now.

TB: With so many troubling issues in New Orleans – a test tube education system, crumbling ecosystems and the highest rate of murder per capita in the United States in 2011 – do you think Prospect.3 will seek to address these complex topics?

FS:An art exhibition can be many things. Rather than specifically address each of those things, which is possible, let me say that I am sure there will be a lot of topical issues, some of them quite complex, addressed in the work of Prospect.3’s artists. I’m not trying to be coy. Just at this early stage, I think we need to stay a little bit open.

TB: After the massive exhibition, Pacific Standard Time, the west coast seems to be reclaiming their place in the canon of American art history in the 60’s and 70’s. New Orleans is also a city that has an important link to the artists working here in the 60’s and 70’s. How will you choose to pay homage to earlier artists while still surprising audiences with new artists? Is that even a consideration as you begin working?

FS: That’s a tough comparison. I’m not sure another city could lay claim in quite the same way that LA could on the late 50s and early 60s as a point of departure. It’s a part of history that has been overlooked but it’s one that has existed, so it’s hard to say reclaim. I think it just got trumpeted properly now.

I have to look deeper and I also have a network of people who know that New Orleans history better than I do, so I look forward to exploring it. Nonetheless, there’s an artist named Ed Clark who was born in Storyville in 1926, and I’d like to see his work in New Orleans now. I worked for him as a studio assistant during college in the late 1980s and learned a lot from him. He wasn’t so active in New Orleans but I think his route is instructive and interesting. He studied at the Art Institute from 1947-1951 and before that was in the US military. After his studies, he ended up living in Paris during the 1950s. It’s a consideration because I also think that no matter how international a show like this is, there has to be a connection between the artists and the public of New Orleans. I’d like to see artists here who have a real resonance with New Orleans and Ed is definitely one of those.

TB: What artists excite you right now? Why?

FS: Omer Fast: great storyteller and an artist, not unlike Steve McQueen and Pierre Huyghe, who can use the tools of film in a magical way to create poetic art. Also, the Propeller Group. They are based in Saigon and Los Angeles, in their own words, they are “manipulators of media language keen to reach a larger audience that takes the presentation of art beyond the world of gallery spaces and museums.” I find them very, very interesting in the way that they go about making work based in two cities on either side of the pacific and utilizing the strategies of international advertising and media.

Omer Fast, The Casting, 2007, Film Still, Fotograf Nicholas Trikonis.

TB: I realize it is very early on to say what specific themes might surround your Prospect.3 exhibits. However, can you tell us about some general themes you work with as you propose and develop new exhibits?

FS: I actually don’t think I can. Each exhibition is different. There are some cases where you might address one theme and that can become a template or a structure, something to jump off from. For instance, Trevor Schoonmaker and I created a template (Roebling Hall, 2006) for an exhibition that addresses the Beautiful Game, soccer, better known as football. It is something we will play with again in the future. But the next iteration will be quite different, different artists, different space.

TB: New Orleans is at a pivotal moment right now. The art scene is getting attention on a national scale, really for the first time ever. Do you believe the global attention is sustainable, and if so, what steps need to be taken to indeed sustain it?

FS: I do believe that Prospect is an important means of focusing that attention. New Orleans has great artists; a host of galleries showing great work in the city; artists showing in international fairs and world class museums; a big network of colleges and universities showing emerging artists and nourishing the potential artists of the future in addition to great self-taught art in abundance. If the people of New Orleans really choose to support all that, the legacy of arts in New Orleans should surely continue to grow.

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