In his first public lecture at SCAD since being appointed department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Franklin Sirmans gave a brief preview into his curatorial practice and the previous appointments he has held in his exciting career. Sirmans will make the short journey to L.A. in January, succeeding Lynn Zelevansky, who recently resigned to direct the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as noted in the L.A. Times. Sirmans' first job out of graduate school was at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York where he was part of the publication team. With a double major in art history and english, Sirmans felt comfortable in this position and enjoyed the opportunity to take on a dual role of writer and curator early on in his career. He mentioned that this helped out quite a bit as "there really are only a handful of writers out there who can make it as a writer full time." Interestingly, I think this works in his favor, as he has had the tools necessary to not only conceptualize significant exhibitions but to also write about them in a clear manor and to maintain an interest in writing as part of the discourse of art history.
One of the most interesting points Sirmans made, that resounded throughout the lecture, was his interest in working with certain artists or artists' works, and how the institution can provide a real opportunity to see these projects through to fruition. For example, Sirmans knew going into his current position at the Menil Collection in Houston that they had works by Robert Ryman in their collection as well as connections with his collectors. While in the end, fearful of damage to the works, collectors opted out of sending them for the exhibition, Sirmans was still able to craft a concise exhibition of three of Ryman's works from 1976 called Contemporary Conversations: Robert Ryman, 1976 exhibited in 2007. Now, this was not something new to Sirmans practice but given as an example of an exhibition that he had wanted to accomplish for some time and within an institution he was a new curator at, it is something of a dream for a curator to hear. So, I asked him, if "there are any works and/or artists in particular that he would like to tap into at LACMA?"
His first mention was that of Mexican artists Diego Rivera, which flowed nicely from his answer to a previous question asking what he was looking forward to working on at LACMA, in which he mentioned graffiti art. In many ways Rivera's outstanding murals have a political, social, and aesthetic link to contemporary graffiti art. He also mentioned a continued interest in curating works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sirmans co-curated "Basquiat," which was exhibited at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005.
Fresh on everyone's mind is Sirmans recent exhibition from 2008 titled "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," which sprang from a book by Ishmael Reed that Sirmans had been contemplating since his days at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. Eventually, the exhibition was exhibited at P.S.1 in early 2009. While working at P.S.1 Sirmans was reading this book and sharing ideas informally with other colleagues. It wasn't until he came to the Menil Collection that he could put his plans for an exhibition into play. In the accompanying catalogue for the exhibition it is explained that NeoHooDoo, a phrase coined by Ishmael Reed in 1970, celebrates the practice of rituals, folklore, and spirituality in the Americas beyond the scope of Christianity and organized religion. Artists included were Ana Mendieta, David Hammons, José Bedia, Rebecca Belmore, and Nari Ward, among twenty-eight others, whose works strengthen the dialogue of art and spirituality.
I am quite interested to see the impact that Sirmans will have on the exhibition programming and publication to come at LACMA. His sensibility to really understanding a collection and utilizing it to potential is something that will result in additional exhibitions of interest and truly maintain an outstanding academic rigor.