Franklin Sirmans remembers visiting the Pérez Art Museum Miami when it opened in December of 2013 and feeling a sense of awe.
“I was just like, ‘Wow. You guys getting to make exhibitions in this building is going to be absolutely incredible,’” he recalled.
Now Sirmans, the 46-year-old curator of contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will be the one making exhibitions – and building the collection, wooing donors and planning programs — in the Herzog & de Meuron building on Biscayne Bay.
PAMM will publicly announce Sirmans’ appointment as director on Friday, wrapping up an extensive search that started when former director Thom Collins said in January that he was leaving after nearly five years to head up the Barnes Foundation in his hometown of Philadelphia. Sirmans starts the new job Oct. 15.
“He blew away the entire search committee,” said Aaron Podhurst, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. “The energy was fantastic. Everybody was just taken by him...He very much is excited about the job, about Miami, and we just think it’s the perfect guy to take us to the next level.”
Dennis Scholl, a museum trustee who chaired the search committee, said the search stretched for six months and members considered “literally hundreds” of candidates.
“One of the rewarding themes that came through during the search and is reflected in our choice is how many important players in the art world were very interested in coming to Miami and coming to the Perez,” Scholl said. “And the result of the search -- to get a director with Franklin’s stature in the contemporary art world -- is simply a coup for the museum and for the community.”
Sirmans has been at LACMA for five years; before that, he was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston and curatorial advisor at the contemporary arts institution MoMA PS1. He was also a lecturer at Princeton University and Maryland Institute College of Art and was U.S. editor of the magazine Flash Art and editor-in-chief of ArtAsiaPacific, an English language magazine.
His projects have included exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work at the Brooklyn Museum; a show focused on contemporary art and hip hop that traveled from the Bronx Museum of the Arts to centers in Minneapolis, Atlanta and Munich; and “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game” at LACMA, about soccer and its importance to societies globally.
Last year, he was artistic director of the 2014 Prospect New Orleans biennial exhibition “P3: Notes for Now,” which presented works from more than 50 artists in 18 locales across the city over three months.
“Franklin is what I like to describe as an outward-facing museum person,” Scholl said. “His first thought is always about the audience. And yet he is still thought of as one of the great contemporary art curators that this country has. That’s a hard thing to do.”
He is no stranger to Miami either. “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith,” which he curated for the Menil Collection, traveled to PAMM in 2009, when it was called the Miami Art Museum.
Sirmans said he has been visiting Miami regularly since the first Art Basel Miami Beach in the early 2000s and has collaborated with institutions including YoungArts and Locust Projects.
“I’d like to lead the Pérez in defining its identity as a 21st century museum and one that is concerned with histories of modern and contemporary art, but one that is very much about the dynamic of making and living with art in the present,” he said. “Like, what does [art] do for us, how do we talk about it and how does it affect people’s lives?”
Scholl said Sirmans’ mandate is to focus on elevating the museum beyond the new building, which has been highly successful as a gathering place thanks to its welcoming waterfront veranda, popular restaurant and programs.
“We knew that to lead our institution further and to take advantage of the opportunities that the building has created for us and its dramatic acceptance in our community, that the next step is to create a place where the art is about our community, for our community but still resonates on an international level,” Scholl said. “And really nobody has done that like Franklin.”
In Miami, Sirmans will find an arts landscape that has become even more fragmented over the past couple of years, with the split between North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art and its board — a move that lead to the creation of the new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Private collectors continue to show works in their own spaces, a trend that will continue when hedge fund manager Bruce Berkowitz builds a corporate office that includes a private museum showcasing large-scale works by James Turrell and Richard Serra.
Sirmans said he sees opportunity in the widespread scene.
“We all know that there’s a lot of incredible art in Miami and in collections, and the museum can be that central spot where everybody can come together and talk about these things — not only in December, but year-round,” he said. “How does a museum work with the fabric of the entire city? With those things in mind, I’m really interested in defining our foundation and doing that also by looking at the collection and building upon the successes of the last two years.”