The art world sometimes takes itself too seriously. Franklin Sirmans doesn't. But that doesn't mean he isn't a serious player. He just knows how to have fun, even while doing significant work.
The proof in Sirmans' pudding are shows such as “The Beautiful Game: Contemporary Art and Fútbol,” organized to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, and “One Planet Under a Groove” from 2001, examining the influence of hip-hop on contemporary art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat “was making music in the late '70s, doing hip-hop before you could really call it that, and was with all of those graffiti artists,” Sirmans says. “It was about all of those things coming together.”
Like Basquiat, one of his main topics of expertise, Sirmans combines a little bit of everything, and does it with a touch of style.
On a stroll around LACMA one Wednesday afternoon, there are few faces around — the museum is closed, and the people on-site are mostly security guards. But all of them seem happy to see Sirmans. He's a friendly guy.
He was recruited as department head and curator for the contemporary collection at LACMA in 2010 from the Menil Collection in Houston, where his shows included the highly successful “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith” (2008), inspired by poet Ishmael Reed's exploration of the connections between artistic expression and spirituality.
Originally from New York, where he met his wife in high school, Sirmans admits that, while he wasn't looking to leave the Menil Collection, the LACMA offer came at a good time. “We had friends in L.A. already and embrace the diversity of geography and people here,” he says. “With a baby on the way, it felt like good timing to put us all somewhere less familiar for this new beginning.”
He pauses at Metropolis II, Chris Burden's sculptural installation, which resembles a Micro Machine race course. Sirmans likes to bring his daughter here on Sundays to watch the 1,100 Lilliputian cars drive around the tracks. “Everybody can figure out something about that piece that really excites them,” he says.
In November, Sirmans was named artistic director for this fall's Prospect New Orleans biennial, an international contemporary art exhibition, which he'll plan simultaneously with his day-to-day work here in L.A.
While curating shows may seem glamorous, that day-to-day can be rather routine: “Checking email, meetings, thinking and looking at art [in books], a walk around campus for some of the real thing,” he says.
But sometimes brilliance comes of all that emailing. Last year, Sirmans' exhibition of work from LACMA's contemporary collection, “Human Nature,” helped incorporate the work of minority artists into the 20th-century canon. L.A. Weekly critic Andrew Berardini called it “the first [exhibition] I've seen in Los Angeles that wholly reflects this changed makeup of a changed world.”
Naturally, Sirmans has a few more ideas up his sleeves. “Just don't ask me what they are,” he says with a wink. “I'm still trying to figure out what could be perfect here. That's the hard part.”