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An Artistic Melting Pot

Franklin Sirmans

Photo by David Lauridsen

Franklin Sirmans photographed at the LACMA exhibit "Penetrable" by Jesus Rafael Soto.

Franklin Sirmans, curator of contemporary art at LACMA, on LA's changing art scene.


LA tends to get a bad rap as an arts city. How has that changed?

I moved here four years ago now, and things have changed for the better in so many ways. . . . There are just so many different, interesting artists here right now. And you can go back to the mid-’60s, when artists such as John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha chose to stay here and decided not to go to New York. Recently, PST [a 2011 regional initiative sparked by The Getty Center called Pacific Standard Time, which brought together institutions to celebrate the birth of the arts scene in Southern California] was really important, too. It let us address the same time period [1945-1980] in the same place, but in so many ways.

LACMA seems quite forward-thinking in its own right.

A We have a much shorter history—we don’t have the baggage of the Met or the Art Institute—which allows us to be more flexible and responsive to change, to respond to the evolution of what a museum experience can be with programming that incorporates film and video, which speak to LA, obviously. The way visitors experience LACMA is quite different from how they experience museums in most cities, the way you can sit out on the plaza. It’s this amazing lounge and people love being able to be outside and still be around all this incredible work. You experience the space in a very broad, expansive way, which is reflective of the city itself. Also, our collection is not founded in the same way as the rest of the country—the sort of European pieces that are a grounding point for those institutions. We can look to our immediate surroundings and past. We have the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, and our art should reflect that to some degree, so we have incredible Korean antiquities and we’ve been acquiring work by younger Korean artists.

Which LA galleries are the ones to watch?

The gallery landscape is so varied. In Santa Monica, you have Shoshana Wayne and Christopher Grimes. Both have been at the forefront of bringing a conversation on international art to LA for more than 20 years. Wayne has had a particular impact, showing women artists since the 1980s. And Grimes has been one of the best in LA for presenting works and artists from South America. In Culver City, LA><ART, founded by Lauri Firstenberg, has consistently proven the necessity for a nonprofit alternative art space in the city. Taking on some of the edgiest artists, the space functions as kind of an incubator for new ideas. Since 1989, Regen Projects has been committed to exploring international art and ideas while simultaneously introducing some of the most important LA artists to the world.

Downtown’s arts scene seems to be on the rise, too.

I’m super excited about another nonprofit space that is soon to open Downtown. Founded by Cesar Garcia, The Mistake Room’s mission is to support an international program of exhibitions and interdisciplinary projects. It will bring some of the most promising emerging artists from around the globe to produce new projects in LA and commission new work by established artists who have never before exhibited here.

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