Marquise Stillwell
Episode 8: Franklin Sirmans on Meaningful Representation and Community Responsibility

I spoke with curator, writer, art critic, and Perez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) director Franklin Sirmans about the importance of deep, layered cultural representation - one that goes beyond optics and into every fiber of his work. Previously Franklin served as department head and curator of contemporary art at LACMA, as well as the Artistic Director of the 2014 Prospect New Orleans biennial. He was also the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston and before that a curatorial advisor at MoMA PS1 and a lecturer at Princeton University and Maryland Institute College of Art. He is the 2007 recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize presented by the High Museum. Prior to his curatorial career, Franklin was the U.S. Editor of Flash Art and Editor-in-Chief of ArtAsiaPacific magazines, Sirmans has written for several journals and newspapers on art and culture, including NYT, Art in America, ArtNews, VIBE, and Essence Magazine. For Sirmans, it’s about addressing the community at every level so that communities of color feel like they are being included authentically and seeing themselves represented and engaged from the work that hangs on the walls to the programming behind it.

Marquise: Welcome to The Sweet Flypaper podcast. My name is Marquise Stillwell. 

Neil: I am Neil Ramsay. 

Marquise: And for today's guest, we have Franklin Sirmans. Writer, curator, critic and the Miami Pérez Art Museum director. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Franklin. 

Neil: Yeah, so Franklin, that's well, in Miami, we're on a first name basis I think with Franklin down here. 

Marquise: Nice. 

Neil: I've known him over the years. Of course, he came in from L.A. to this community and the Pérez Museum, first and foremost. 

Marquise: Was he instantly embraced? How was that? I mean, L.A. and Miami, some people listening may think that those are very similar, but they can be very different. 

Neil: Yeah, it is very different. They are very different. I think he acknowledges there's quite a difference. And I think that was part of this excitement. And he speaks about the excitement of coming to Miami because Miami has such a, I don't want to just say diverse, but Miami is really a city that's primed for incubating ideas and thoughts because it really is coming up as a city of art. 

But compared to L.A. and New York, London, Paris, you know, we're infants still and doing it our way. And of course, the predecessor was Terence Riley. So then in this Pérez Museum, there's a strong art and design connection. As I mentioned, Terence Riley, that was Herzog and se Meuron came, so the facility, the building in Miami–just so, you know, I'm not sure if you've been there, I'm sure you have been there, but in case you haven't–I mean, and for our listeners, the Pérez Art Museum is a brilliant architectural site, too.

Marquise: No, it's beautiful. And you know, one thing that I notice is how he and the museum have been able to pull in Latin American, Latinx diaspora and the Black diaspora and really put it on display. It's not just like a novelty or a one time show. You can really feel that someone is being thoughtful around Black and, you know, people of color. I mean, do you experience that just being in Miami? 

Neil: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's one of the factors of Miami, much respect to Franklin and to all of the team and just in the world of museums, that is our community in terms of our demographic makeup. And as you said, especially after the last year or the last couple of years, there's a real question as to who really is the art museum community. One of the things that I don't envy him for is, you know, museums, they have to respond to the community. 

But you and I both know there are really two communities. There's a community that has to preserve, donate, gift, and then there's also the community in the immediate neighborhood to actually engage with all of that services and production and the goodness that's coming out, and for the community itself. And right now, you know, museums are under scrutiny for alignment in those things in terms of where they're getting resources. But Miami is a terrific sandbox for him in that sense. And as far as I know, he's doing really, really well. I think he's been here five or six years now, I can't speak to that. And to definitely answer your question, I think he's really well-loved and really good in Miami.

Marquise: It seems that way. I mean, honestly, when we go out to Art Basel, I feel like he's just, you know, holding court and really representing not only the museum, but Miami at large when it comes to art and design. And that's just such a beautiful thing to have someone like Franklin representing that. 

Neil: And as you said, though, when you're in the museum, you know you're in Miami. You know, you're close to the Caribbean, you know, you're close to Latin America, and that's really commendable. I think you know that I'm big on nodes. 

Marquise: What's the evidence?

Neil: It's a node within a system, and that's important. 

Marquise: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, let's jump in. Franklin Sirmans, enjoy. 

Marquise: First, thank you for being here, Franklin. Wonderful, wonderful to finally meet you. 

Franklin: I've heard a lot about you. It’s great to meet with you.

Marquise: Yeah, this is dope. Before I even start, I always like to just level-set and have you describe what you do. I know it's curatorial, but a little more dynamic than that. It’s just Black people, Black men coming up in this space…we're more dynamic. So I'd love just to hear your dynamic way of working and doing and how you apply that. 

Franklin: Man, it’s like, today I don't even know. Not only because the last eight months have been so crazy, but I would say in general, I gravitated towards this....I don't know if vocation is the right word, but to be a museum director, in the best of times, I knew I was walking into a position that in a really beautiful way, is abstract in terms of the way that we describe it, right? It's equal parts fundraising, which has an element that can be quite interesting and can be a great way of meeting really interesting people and of traveling the world, and I always knew that I wanted to be in that space. I mean, I knew that from the very early age that I definitely wanted to be able to have a good degree of movement in my vocation, and I was willing to sacrifice financially in order to have that. For instance, I left a pretty good job in 1996, when I was working at Dia Center for the Arts, and went to live in Milan and was there for two years. So I knew that that was part of it. So this is all to say that the job of being a museum director is... it's hard to describe in one way.

Marquise: Yeah, that's what I was saying. I mean, you can't just say, like curator, right. You're not–that's what people think they see, but what really happens behind the scenes? Especially, you know, someone like yourself. And in Miami, I mean, give me a sense of what that means in Miami with everything that's going on. I mean, you have a lot of different donors, right? I mean, you gotta wear so many faces when you go in to do work you do. Um, so I mean, give it to me, keep it real.

Franklin: You know, the interesting thing, I think, in one sense is that, the building I work in is a beautiful building, and it just opened in 2013. It's a building that was made by the Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron. It's gorgeous. It sits on the Biscayne Bay and it sits right next to a big 30-acre park in the middle of Downtown Miami. Location-wise, it's a beautiful, interesting place to work from.

And I say that to say that the director here, when the building was going up was a guy named Terry Riley, who is an architect—he was an architecture department curator at MoMA. And then for me, coming in after another director, I'm bringing, probably, a view that hasn't been seen as much at the museum. And you can say in one very banal away, their perspective and lens that you and I share of being Black and being male in America.

Marquise: Yeah.

Franklin: So there's that, and then there's the layers upon layers... for me, it was also like getting back to the East coast and feeling a sense of, like, I feel like I have a more intuitive sense of how to go about working when I'm on the East coast, as opposed to the West coast, just, you know, experience and living, being born in Queens and more or less being in New York and being in Harlem...that's my experience. 

So, you know, I think there are all those layers that go into it. And then being here, you're dealing with another country in some ways. And I appreciate that, as I said. I like to move about, I don't mind being in a place where I don't know everything. And so I get to work with an amazing team here—60 some odd people that all have different experiences. And it becomes cliche at times, but I think it's hard to find a city with the opportunity to build potentially around diversity, better than the opportunity we have before us. So I was excited to come here.

Marquise: No. I mean, that's still, you know, what's interesting in just researching your work, that similar thing that you had said about growing up and ripping magazines and putting them on the wall... you and I are close to the same age, I think we're both in our 30’s, 40, early-40s. Yeah. I did the same thing. You know, Jet Magazine, you know, we would take them on our wall and we create these collages. They were the only poster that I was trying to have was George Gervin, the Iceman, you know, you remember that poster? Yeah, forget about it.

Franklin: Of course!

Marquise: So, you know, for you growing up and being resourceful and ripping magazines and playing... talk to me about how you still take some of those ways of... some people may call it scrappy...that’s just being dynamic. How have you thought about being dynamic based on how you grew up. 

Franklin: Well, I mean, you know, the fact that you say George Gervin, right? It's somebody that, like, we know, but not everybody knows The Iceman. And so there are these different lanes of getting in or understanding that I've always kind of gravitated toward or been enamored of whether I understood them or not. And I guess to clarify, growing up and being in say, the early eighties, and watching hip hop develop and watching the way that creativity just exploded... and knowing full well from the very beginning that it was about a pastiche was about a collage, as you said, the sense of intuition... are all of the hallmarks in some ways of just African American life, period... or African diasporic life, period. 

How, do you mean, you know, that feeds into the interest... and I think that there's an appreciation that makes it a point of departure for everything that we want to do or everything that we do, though.

Marquise: How do you start to shape that, to tell our stories? In early conversation, I mentioned that I have a film company, and on one side we just finished The New Bauhaus film, and talking about Maholy Nagy. And now we're working on a film with Nellie Mae Rowe. And, you know, you mentioned that, you know, your family are collectors and you had a Nellie. For us, telling that story is so important.

Talk to me about how, when you're curating, you're telling stories, how do you actually draw out those stories? So it's not a caricature, right? I mean, that's the challenge with Nellie Mae is that we're making sure that... she's an artist. But sometimes folk art, and, you know, we can probably dive down that hole all day...

But talk to me about how you balance this idea of people, [who] want to check a box and name it, certain things, and not actually acknowledge the truth of what it is.

Franklin: Yeah. Always trying to be...aware and find a healthy balance in binary thought... in that, you know, I don't know how to say it even better than that necessarily. I've always tried to have a balance between that and part of that has been a desire... Like, I use the example of when I was younger, I would go to the met with, you know, a school trip, right, to the Metropolitan museum. It makes you feel kind of small, you got to walk up these gigantic steps, Greco-Roman architecture...It's almost like this imposing kind of thing on you, on top of you. 

And then go into the Studio Museum in Harlem. On the other hand, we had glass windows and the way I, at least the way I remember it being directly on the street. And so this dynamic between street life, and museum life, it's something that is clear... and it's a bridge. And so I've always tried to approach it from that point of view, and it gives us a unique point of view anyway, because I don't think that's the norm.

Marquise: Yeah. How do you build upon... one thing that I've really been interested in, is looking through the archives of, again, one side of it being in Germany... and seeing how they've had all these museums and archives, what that also represents is evidence. Right? And with Nellie Mae Rowe, we're having to go in deeper and find that evidence. How do you also think about the evidence that you're bringing forward through the artwork? And showing our lived experience...particularly as we're going through this idea of they're trying to erase... they're trying to act like we never existed, in many ways. How do you express and balance that between everything that you're bringing to life at the museum? 

Franklin: So one very specific way that we talk about the museum and the way that we see things is we say, it's through a Miami lens. And so that means being the best at presenting the work of Latin America and the Caribbean, that means we look toward the US Latino experience, we look toward the African diaspora, and so we've elevated our energy around those fears by... we have a fund for African-American art, which allows for us to continuously buy work in that vein all the time, every single year. We have created an affiliate group called the Latin American and Latinx Art Fund, which specifically allows for us to do that and to build with other people around that passion.

And so we've been able to put those things to the fore. I think one of the important things in that question is also representation, and the idea that museums do provide a sense of representation and it is important to have a place in the museum, especially when so many other avenues have been not so,

Marquise: How does representation, how do you see that in regards to beyond the artists, patrons, funders? I mean, what's that look like for you? 

Franklin: So you saw so a little kid should walk in there and literally we see themselves. They can see themselves in a painting. Cool. They can see themselves in a photograph. Cool. But they should also see that in our entire structure, in our personnel. Right. They should see it across the board from the lowest-paid visitor services kind of entry-level person into the museum to the very top. It should have that sort of diversity. That's how I think representation should come across.

Marquise: When it comes to, just, across the country, you know, we're seeing challenges of staff. Yeah. I mean, let's just be real about it. I'm sure it's not easy to be working for a lot of these museums, especially if there's not someone like yourself at the top, what would you say to individuals who are working in these places and they don't see themselves. How do you create that culture? The internal culture, the staff, the other curators... What does that look like for you? 

Franklin: Well, for us? It's about listening, and it's about teamwork. You know, we're in a unique situation here. Here you go to a civic building here and you see three languages, right? You have English and Spanish, but you also have Creole. So there is a sense of representation. One sees oneself at least to some degree, as soon as you walk in the building and recognize that.

The other thing is, as far as museum culture goes, you know, we've all talked a lot of good game in terms of wanting to be leaders in the conversation on diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility. Right? So now's the perfect time. So what I would say to younger souls or younger folks who are in that position right now is seize the moment and keep pressing and make those changes.

I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Lowery Sims, who was the head of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met for God knows how long. So the path has been laid, and people have continuously done the work that brings us to this point, but now it's a really, really, really important moment to the way that we look at museums and the way that museums look at us.

Marquise: Yeah, no, this is a really pivotal moment. Um, 

Franklin: Absolutely.

Marquise: Let's talk a little bit more about your past and how know, I'm from the Midwest, and when I first moved to New York, I moved to Harlem. I thought about Brooklyn. Brooklyn seemed like the place. Everybody wants to go to Brooklyn, but I wanted that uptown bounce.

Talk to me a little about Harlem when you were growing up, and what that felt like. And I know it's changing and everyone's, you know, talking about that. But talk a little bit about how that uptown bounce, how you still have that bounce when you walk to the Perez today.

Franklin: I was incredibly fortunate. I lived in early on in Lenox Terrace, which has its own special history, right, so Charlie Rangel was in there, Percy Sutton, the Sutton family, et cetera. Right. It was an amazing place. In fact, if you turned on Forrest Witaker’s Godfather of Harlem right now he's in Lenox Terrace, or a fictional Lenox Terrace. So I had that, and fortunately it was combined with going to a school down on 96th street that was an incredibly progressive, liberal-minded space that was all about bringing different people together. So it had a sliding scale of tuition and which, you know, those who had more, paid more, which allowed for those who did not to be there... [they] believed that inclusion, diversity, accessibility and equity were integral to creating a more humane society. And so that, you know, I feel very fortunate. And that was Manhattan Country School, and I try to support it as much as I can. 

Marquise: So what's that path today? What does Franklin 2020, you know that young man who's trying to find that wave... with arts being cut out of curriculums, kids can't afford to go to The Met, you know, all of that. I mean, how do we create the next new wave of young Black kids who are interested in the arts, the way that we were able to be? 

Franklin: So, so many people are doing such amazing things. I mean, Studio Museum just keeps getting bigger and better, and we know, and they’re gonna have an amazing building by David Adjaye any moment now? Yeah. I mean, the things that Thelma Golden has done there, they're just phenomenal... and all of the wonderful, incredible women who were there before her. But it is just an unbelievable space. And frankly, I try to have that kind of impact. 

One thing that we did do that I think was important was a few years ago, we started a program called Student Pass, which allowed for every single kid in Miami-Dade County public school system to have a free membership at the museum. And that was possible because we have an amazing superintendent of schools in Alberto Carvalho. And so we made that happen. I mean, I think it's up to us as museums and those of us who are in those positions to make up for the slack and to make up for the voids that we can, see, so that's what we've been doing.

We're fortunate—we also have a Knight Foundation here, which has been an incredible supporter, a huge supporter, specifically of education and its relationship to the museum. So it's paramount... it’s everything that we do. And I know, I know for a fact that we're creating a generation that is going to look at the arts differently in Miami. And most importantly, I believe they're going to look at each other differently. Because they've spent quality time together and they spent time talking about issues and talking about people in the museum and hopefully creating a level of empathy that does not exist in the present. 

Marquise: Yeah. Do you feel like artists have a responsibility to this, to change... or?

Franklin: I don't know. I know we have a responsibility as presenters and trying to give artists the best platform for their work. But I do believe in this moment that, um, you know, artists are always activists in some fashion. So...

Marquise: Yeah. Whether they know it... it's funny, you and I have another vote project that crosses, so I'm on a project right now, in Dayton, Ohio... I'm originally from Ohio. And so The Funk Museum, so I'm working on a project right now to help the Funk Center come back in Dayton, Ohio. I've in fact, I just spoke with the team that I'm a part of on that. And we work with George Clinton... and you know, what we're talking about is this idea of Black futurism, right? That's what folk, or the funk was all about. So talk to me a little bit about working with George Clinton, and this idea of Black futures and what that actually means for what you see in the work. How does that work for the job?

Franklin: Oh my gosh. It was incredible! The generosity and the spirit was just insane. There's a woman named Vivian Scott Chew who was the bridge to us, and it's somebody I've known since I was a little kid. So we had a very, you know, clear tie. But to work with him and to look at him in the studio and to listen to the way that he makes a clear, easy path from creating the kind of Afrofuturist sound that they created to him being in the studio and creating a similar kind of vibe is absolutely phenomenal.

I mean, that's one of those things. Like I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Rauschenberg, like not too long before he passed. And you find your, you know, you've had this experience when you find yourself in, in, in giant territory...and you just kind of like, back off a little bit in awe. It's just impossible not to, and George has the aura.

Marquise: He does. He absolutely does. And anytime I see him, I'm in a room with somebody like that and like yourself, I've had the opportunity to really meet some great people, I imagine the transferring of energy and power. I really believe in this idea of AI and ancestral intelligence and transformation. How do you apply that as well, and the work that you're doing, even just yourself....

Franklin: Oh, it's all that. Yeah, it's all about that. 

Marquise: How are you living that and expressing it that?

Franklin: Well, it's always that because we find so much sustenance and that's what keeps us going. I mentioned Lowery, right? We can talk about David Driskell, I can talk about Leslie Kingham and I mean, in 2000...I think it was 2003, I was bumping around and I was freelancing. I was, you know, independent curator, just trying to figure it out. And Leslie Kingham manages to get me a gig at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, teaching grad school kids, I'm teaching 20th century art...

Marquise: So could you see this over here now? Or did you kind of just bump it? 

Franklin: Nah, not then. I mean, I could see it... because I had, you know, seeing other things, right? And I knew people who were in similar places. But no.

Marquise: From there, you say you bouncing around it, I'm kind of thinking of your own Black futurism, right? Kind of like, how did you start to bounce around and then start to see yourself? You know, when was that moment where you started to see yourself?

Franklin: There were two moments. And one of the funny things that like, this is the... oh, we only talk about this in certain company, right? So as somebody who, my father was a doctor… he had an office, a medical office and, we were quote unquote “upwardly mobile or something like that. I suppose you can bounce off of things like that. Right? So to me, it was like, I'm going to go buck wild, crazy, in the opposite direction. Who wants to be safe and stuff. Who wants that a financial future. And then the second part of it is more of the visual aspect is as I mentioned, with like, having a Nellie Mae Rowe around, right. I also had the opportunity to bump around and literally bump into people like Ed Clark, Al Loving, Ed Carter. [Marquise: Oh, wow.] And they were all around, but that wasn't me, right? They, you know, it was a different generation. They're primarily abstract artists...and it's a cliche, but in 1985, when I'm in high school, to see John Michel Basquiat on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, you know, holding the brush of his foot up in the air with a fly suit on, it was like, Hmm. Yeah. That fits a lot more, and it makes a hell of a lot more sense with the sound that we're hearing on the radio.

Marquise: That's kind of how I see, you know, funk music, I felt like, always gave us permission to see the future. 

Franklin: Sure. And to see a better future.

Marquise: That's right. And I think that that's, you know, for me, the experience of going to art museums, for me, art museums have always been a breath of fresh air in this life and things that I'm going through, it's always been very much therapeutic to me. 

Franklin: Yeah. 

Marquise: And being able to see myself is the next level of that. 

Franklin: So, how did you get out of Dayton and what were you...? 

Marquise: I mean, same thing. I just, I kind of bounced around in my twenties and not knowing exactly what... but I always say that, you know, my mother was great at creating conditions to be surprised. And it's just like, if you can just create certain conditions in your life, whether it's the girl you may have been dating the friends and fellas you might’ve been hanging out with. And, you know, people talk about, you know, the eighties and stuff. We were always on the edge of trouble or a success, right? We was in the wrong car at the wrong moment, so we escaped. Like for us to have made it through the nineties, and you and I to still be able to sit here as brothers and have this conversation. A lot of prayers, a lot of luck to be able to get here. 

Marquise: Because people be tripping down and thinking police brutality, and all this stuff... cause you got videos now. But it was just open season for a lot of stuff. From the gangs to the police, to the pimps... to everybody.

Franklin: Absolutely. 

Marquise: And we made it, Franklin. We’re here. 

Franklin: Yeah, that was the beautiful thing about being in Harlem at that age was that literally I saw, I had like a cousin up on 140 seventh street in the Esplanade and the distance of that 12 blocks was like the avenues... the gang that you had to look out for...It was crazy. But then on the other hand, you have the opportunity to go to The Met down on Fifth Avenue. So it was this crazy contrast, it was amazing. 

Marquise: Yeah, and it was a constant, and I guess that's the energy that I'm always looking to hear from others, saying, Hey, you know, these young people, I get that, um, they have a different world… they can get onto their digital and change their whole environment with one click of a button, and that there isn't this weird bounce between analog and digital world that they live in. And where we come from a very analog and worked our way into the digital. 

Franklin: Totally. 

Marquise: And I'm sure you feel the same way. If you're given one more password, you're going to blow up. 

Franklin: It's like, bananas. I mean, it's funny. And yet, and now, in a knee jerk reaction asked my 10 year old daughter to help me with something the other day. 

Marquise: Right? 

Franklin: I was like, this is the beginning of....

Marquise: Exactly. Exactly. But anyways, I appreciate the time talking with you. I can't wait till we can do this in person. 

Franklin: When is the Nellie Mae Rowe? 

Marquise: The Nellie Mae Rowe film is... we’re almost complete with shooting it. We’re actually doing some animation. I'd love to circle back with you and just talk to you.

Franklin: Please do. 

Marquise: We got some good people that are helping on advising and dream has been helping us. But I'd love to talk to you about it because it's a sensitive issue, you know, in regards to the Judith Alexander Foundation who helped to support Nellie Mae, and this balance between the patron, the white patron, 

Franklin: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Marquise: Right. The white patron and the Black artists. And I know your thesis, I haven't read your thesis, but I'm sure the Basquiat thing is... there's a similar things where it was like, okay, did he assimilate, did he adapt? What does that actually mean to the Truth of the word? Do we need to care about the Truth?

Franklin: I hear you. I would love to follow up on that. I mean, it's a huge conversation. 

Marquise: It is. But thank you so much for joining me. I am so glad that we can do this. 

Franklin: Me too.