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Art Basel Miami through the eyes of a LACMA curator

Viewers lounge inside a gallery at Art Basel Miami
Viewers lounge inside a gallery at Art Basel Miami
Courtesy of Art Basel
Viewers lounge inside a gallery at Art Basel Miami
Franklin Sirmans is chief curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA

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Every year the art world heads to South Beach for Art Basel Miami, an art show/extended party on the beach. This year's festival, which runs from through December 7, features exhibitions of hundreds of artists, concerts and even artist-sponsored nap time.

Franklin Sirmans is the Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA, and he just returned from Art Basel Miami. When he spoke with The Frame, we asked him about the culture of the event, viewing the art fair through the eyes of a curator, and the artists who stood out.

Interview Highlights:

How is the event in Miami, which started in 2001, different from the Art Basel fairs in Swizerland and Hong Kong?

It's younger and it's probably brasher than the European version, which has been around so much longer. But it's also probably more foundational than the one that's in Hong Kong, which I think has a shorter lifespan thus far.

Describe the scene in Miami for us; it sounds like it's a bit of a mob, and there's a nightlife element as well.

[laughs] I've been going since 2001 or 2002, so there's always a sort of excitement that accompanies it. But at the same time the scene is one of commerce, so as a curator you try to approach it from your own vantage point.

I think that it has become this giant festival thing, although it began more as a way of trying to see the newest things in art created around the world, and I think that's the thing that really is the highlight for us as curators: you get to see so much stuff in one place. It's so fast, maybe even too fast, and it's not in the best context, but there are so many things from so many places all at once. You just can't do that when you're at home.

How does the market aspect of the fair affect your job?

Well, we're still a part of the market. We get priced out of a lot of things, but we have some amazing supporters here that help us function within the marketplace. So we're looking, and we have groups of supporters who come down with us. And while they are looking for themselves, they're also looking with an eye toward what's museum quality and what might end up at LACMA.

You probably don't want to tip your hand, but did you see anything this year that caught your eye? Any discernible trends or emerging artists who you were really impressed by?

For me, going to Art Basel is not like going to the other fairs. You've probably heard references to Nada or Untitled, which I also attended, where you see a lot of younger artists and a lot more artists that you don't know about. Art Basel, on the other hand, features artists that are shown in major galleries all around the world. It's tough ... in that environment, our looking changes a little bit.

I was looking at works that I think could be pivotal for our collection: works by Christian Marclay, for instance. We own "The Clock," which is a signature piece of video work that he created that's made of clips from 24 hours worth of Hollywood film, but there's a 1990 sculpture at the fair this year by him that I think is just amazing, and it would add a really different piece to the conversation around this important artist that we love at the museum.

There was also wonderful work at an L.A. gallery, Blum and Poe, by Lee Ufan, which is something that I've had my eye on for a while. We didn't get this one, but we're looking.

The fair continues through this weekend, but you came back a little bit early. Is there only so much Art Basel that any one person can take?

[laughs] As a curator, I think it's best to see as much as you can early on, just pack it all in, and then try to get out of town.

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