Interview: Franklin Sirmans

by Wendy Vogel

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      Ai Weiwei
      Untitled (Divine Proportion)
      2006
      Los Angeles County Museum of Art gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee
      Photo credit: Giovanni Tarifeño
      Courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist

      Formerly the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Houston’s Menil Collection, Franklin Sirmans assumed his current position as the Terri and Michael Smooke Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in January 2010. As a follow-up to Sirmans’ talk at Arthouse a few weeks ago, …mbg caught up with him over email to talk about what he’s been up to in LA and his transition from the Third Coast to the West Coast.

      …might be good […mbg]: You've been at LACMA now for a little over a year. How has the adjustment been? What have you been working on?

      Franklin Sirmans [FS]: Working with the staff of both the Menil and LACMA, and thanks to Michael Govan’s enthusiastic support, we were able to bring Steve Wolfe’s and Vija Celmins’ solo shows here that originated at the Menil. We gave Steve Wolfe’s show a third and final venue on the West Coast, in the state where Steve lives (he’s based in San Francisco), thus completing the tour after the Whitney in New York and the Menil. Also, with Vija Celmins, another homecoming was created here at LACMA. All the work in the show was created here in Los Angeles, where Vija lived in the ‘60s during and after attending UCLA. She has a ton of friends here who got to revisit the work. It was incredibly special to see the artists’ turnout for her opening—a who’s who of LA art stars who made their mark here more than 50 years ago. And the show is still up for another month.

      I went straight to work with the Broad Collection as well, organizing a small group primarily of paintings under the rubric of Color and Form as a complement to the traveling exhibition, Blinky Palermo. We were the first venue for that show, last fall. We’ve also made some key acquisitions through purchases and donations: Ai Weiwei, Christian Marclay, Glenn Ligon, Zhang Huan, Paul Pfeiffer, as well as younger artists like Leslie Hewitt, Friedrich Kunath, Rodney McMillian, Mario Ybarra and Alex Olson.

      …mbg: How has working for LACMA as an institution differed from the Menil Collection? Both institutions have specialties beyond contemporary art, but LACMA is a true encyclopedic collection. Has that impacted your curatorial practice at all?

      FS: They are completely different institutions, beginning with the vast difference in space and the size of the collections. I’m honestly still trying to figure out the differences in my own curatorial practice. At the Menil, I was responsible for Modern and Contemporary. Here, I work with two other great curators in our contemporary department closely (Rita Gonzalez and Christine Y. Kim) but we all overlap and talk with a staff of over thirty LACMA curators and assistants.

      …mbg: Do you have any recommendations for emerging artists, artist-run spaces or galleries in LA that our Texas readers should know about?

      FS: Hmmm… it’s a big city. That would be a complicated answer. For now, I’ll just mention LAXART, run by Lauri Firstenberg, which a lot of people will already know.

      …mbg: Houston is often said to be similar to LA in its sprawl and its vibe. Thoughts on that?

      FS: I can’t see that. I only started driving right before I left Houston, so my view and experience of Houston is certainly not typical, but I’d still have to think about that a lot more.

      …mbg: What can Texas learn from LA (positive or negative, if anything)?

      FS: It’s good to think of yourself as being at the center of the world sometimes.

      …mbg: What can LA learn from Texas (if anything)?

      FS: Civic pride.

      …mbg: What's next for you? Can you give us a sneak preview of your upcoming projects?

      FS: We are the West Coast venue for the Glenn Ligon exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum, which, of course, will travel afterward to the Fort Worth Modern. Last year we purchased two works by Ligon, so it is going to be really exciting to see that show travel here and represent some of the incredibly large presence his work has in LA collections. Also, PST (Pacific Standard Time), the Getty initiative to consider art from Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980, begins this fall and that will be huge. Among the many shows and events, I contributed to the catalogue for a show by Kellie Jones at the Hammer called Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980. Fittingly for our conversation, the essay focuses on Walter Hopps and his curatorial presence here and elsewhere. Rita Gonzalez is working on a show with the Chicano collective Asco that opens this fall also as part of PST. And our modern art department will present a seminal work by Ed Kienholz that was shown at Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany and has never been presented in this country.

      This fall we will also be presenting Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, a work that will later go to Houston. 

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.

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