A Conversation with Mikhaile Solomon, Director and Founder of Prizm, Art Basel Miami Beach’s only art fair dedicated to artists of color
After completing its third year at Art Basel Miami Beach, Prizm art fair has grown in size, in audience, and in programming. Founded by Mikhaile Solomon, a Miami native and curator with a background in architecture, the fair presents work by artists of color who “reflect global trends in contemporary art.” This year’s Prizm presented a curated exhibition of works by individual artists, and also performances, parties, and panel discussions that all drew bigger crowds than ever before.
A month after Basel ended, I caught up with Solomon to find out more about the fair this year.
Can you talk about the mission behind Prizm?
Prizm and its mission is defined by its very definition – a “prism” is a transparent solid body used for dispersing light into a spectrum or for reflecting rays of light. That’s essentially the goal: to strongly represent artists from all over the world, especially the African diaspora. Our long term goal is to create a multi-cultural fair.
I appreciate the culture that I am a part of. I want all people to have a deeper appreciation for it in a broader sense.
That being said, the things people of color are expressing are valid and unique and three years ago I felt they weren’t being represented enough at the art fairs I attended. Artists of color explore ideas and issues that all people, no matter what race or ethnicity, are affected by – not just people of color. We all benefit from presence of PoC (People of Color) and the inclusion of their dialogue in the artistic landscape. Art (various disciplines within the arts) is one of the few forums within which one can have very honest and open discourse without filter.
How would this change the current structure of Prizm?
In the future, I would like to invite artists & galleries from Africa, Middle East, India, and a number other places… I want to create a space where creative voices can come together and coalesce and speak in the broader arts market. They’re not doing that yet.
Also I would love to actually have people from these ethnicities be the stewards of their own voices – it’s one thing to have gallerists and collectors representing artists of color, but it’s different when people of color represent themselves — become the stewards of their cultural capital. There’s not a whole lot of minority-run art galleries in this country, which is unfortunate. Creating spaces where diversity really exists – not just a buzzword – is what I want Prizm to be.
I am thrilled that Prizm continues to offer a solid range of options that are quite unique and different than every other fair I visited. Did you do anything differently this year than in the past two years?
We definitely had more community engagement this year. I think people were much more verbal about the the programming we had this year and about the impact of the work at the fair. We sold more work, which is great and we had a larger turnout too.
Maybe this is natural progress since this is our third year. I think the press we received the year before helped get people interested in attending this year. As far as audience, we had people who returned from past years and a lot of new faces… New collectors showed up and people who were interested in supporting this fair came. We’ve just gotten a lot of positive feedback and also just received additional grant funding since the third fair ended from the Knight Foundation and Green Family Foundation, which has been supporting Prizm since 2014.
Is Prizm a fair in progress? What changes will you continue to make?
This year I am planning to focus on Prizm 110% to ensure that it be what it needs to be for 2016. Last year, I juggled many balls and wore many hats. This year, I will streamline by processes and exclusively focus of Prizm’s seasonal programming and Prizm 2016.
In terms of the fair’s structure, it’s unique and dynamic. I am still figuring out best structure for it and I am happy to test and see what works best. I co-curated Prizm 2013 with another colleague in the arts, Marie Vickles, in 2014, I was the sole curator and 2015 co-curated the fair with Rosie Gordon Wallace and A.M. Weaver. I like to share the platform with other voices in the arts community. I’m looking forward to shaping the 2016 program. It’s already shaping up. Stay tuned.
How did you come to found and direct an art fair? How do you make business decisions?
Although we haven’t worked with galleries (who typically pay steep funds to present work at a fair), our artists do not pay for their spaces or for their shipping which is pretty expensive. These are the people with the talent; the reason why we can actually have the fair is their talent. In the future, we plan to work with individual artists and also with galleries.
What is the effect of the building on the fair?
My goal is to place Prizm in a larger, more beautiful space next year. My formal educational background is in architecture, so having a really great space so that I can design a beautiful exhibition is my ultimate goal. To enjoy the process of putting a great fair together, that is the process that I love. Last year I only had about four months to put everything together – I was so thankful when it came together – but it was still so mentally and physically draining.
What was the impact of programming on the fair?
Curating the panel series was really great. I loved all of the panel talks! They were great and I honestly think, ours was one of the most robust and content-heavy during Basel. I am a huge proponent of education so I was really excited to have the guests that were had. The films that we showed were great too – Papa Machete, a Sundance & Toronto film festival winner and Serendipity shown at MOMA’s summer film series in 2015 are two examples.
Can you talk about Jefferson Pinder’s performance at Prizm?
Jefferson and I were talking every single day to make sure his performance was a success. Basel week in 2015 was unpredictably rainy every day, so we had to make many logistic adjustments, including bringing the performance in doors as it was originally planned for the outdoors. Working with him and Lionz of Zion (Bboy crew) was a joy. To have them do such a timely and poignant piece was great at Prizm in the wake of several atrocities against young black males by law enforcement in the United States was an unfortunate narrative that needed be expounded upon and Jefferson choreographed piece, Dark Matter(s) did just that.
How many of the artists participated in Prizm from the Baltimore-Washington area? It seems like a high percentage.
A good 55% of participating artists are from Baltimore-Washington area. It’s a part of the country that produces really strong work and I have a past history in the region. I was working on a different project a few years ago as assistant producer, and worked with Amber Robles-Gordon and a number of other artists.
At that time, I was selecting a lot of talented artists for that particular project. Many of the artists I selected then were just emerging, but now their careers are really growing in the art world. I decided to start my own project and most of the artists I continue to work with do extremely well.
As a Miami Native, what is your response to the giant crazy thing that Art Basel Miami Beach has turned into?
It’s funny. I went to Basel Switzerland last year for their fairs and it’s much more serious. It’s like the Wall Street of art fairs. People are there specifically on a mission to buy or sell. Celebrities aren’t there, or if they are it’s in secret. The Basel Fair emphasizes the culture of the city. There was a lot of programming at important museums in and around town and receptions at foundations. While Basel was the main focus there was still a clear mindfulness paid to its context and local culture, too… and this is a cue I hope Basel | Miami Beach will draw from.
Thanks so much for all that you do for artists and having this conversation! We wish you the best in your next year of planning for Prizm!