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The New ICA: One Year Later

Popular? Absolutely. Bold? The jury is out.

In its new space, the museum has drawn crowds, but some supporters hope for more

Email|Print| Text size + By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / December 9, 2007

The snickers began with the first show in the Institute of Contemporary Art's new building. The art world types called "Super Vision," a survey exhibition featuring works by Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, and Yoko Ono, dumbed-down, name-driven, and predictable.

"It was a show of postage stamp work that we all know," grumbled Claudia Gould, the director of Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art. "I don't know what they were thinking."

At Boston's ICA, they were thinking of something rarely experienced at their old home in the Back Bay: crowds. The ICA, which marks its one-year anniversary on South Boston's Fan Pier tomorrow, sent a message with "Super Vision." This was no longer a museum for the city's small, dedicated core of contemporary art lovers. The ICA was for everyone.

The museum's leaders make no apologies for the initial exhibition, and those that followed. They say the shows, which included solo exhibitions by photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, were not overly conservative even if they were meant to attract more than the hardcore group that used to visit the old ICA.

"The contemporary art world is a very small bubble and most people are not a part of that," said Nicholas Baume, the ICA's chief curator. "For most of the people that came to see the opening, the work was very risky. I had people saying to me, 'Wow, I didn't like everything in the show, but it certainly pushed the boundaries. Are you going to be as edgy as that with every show you do?' "

"Super Vision" drew 111,255 people to the ICA, making it the best-attended show in the museum's history. In fact, the exhibition, over 4 1/2 months, drew seven times more people than the old ICA saw walk through its doors during all of 1998, when director Jill Medvedow took over.

Finding a proper home was no small feat for the ICA. The museum moved 10 times since its founding in 1936, eventually ending up in a renovated former police station on Boylston Street that was so small it meant the ICA had to close between shows to move art out and in. A permanent collection was out of the question.

"Ninety-nine per cent of our audience . . . had no experience with the ICA," said Medvedow.

With the new building come new expectations. The annual budget has grown from $4.3 million to $12.6 million, its staff from 32 to 74 positions. While recognizing that first-year attendance of 300,000 is an anomaly - all new museums enjoy a boom - Medvedow projects between 200,000 and 225,000 visitors annually.

Those people aren't just coming to look at art. They're experiencing the ICA's slew of new programs, whether school and family related, or theater, film, and music events taking place in the ICA's glass-walled amphitheater.

Bill Arning, curator at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, calls himself a big fan of the new museum, but not for what's in the galleries.

"They haven't had their show yet, the show that's going to rock people's socks curatorially," said Arning. "What's been exciting is the performance program. In terms of a big addition to the cultural life of the city, that's probably been the biggest plus."

New life in the area

Matthew Nash, publisher of the online art magazine Big RED & Shiny, has heard local artists and curators waxing nostalgic for shows in the old building.

"Paul Chan comes up a lot," said Nash, referring to the artist who had one of the last shows on Boylston Street in 2005-06. "Thomas Hirschhorn. Love it or hate it, that was a widely discussed show. And I'm having difficulty imagining anything like that happening in the new space."

But for all its charm, the layout of the old ICA forced the museum to close between exhibitions; installers couldn't get one show out and another in at the same time. There was also no room for the kinds of amenities - a cafe or proper theater - expected in a modern museum. The old ICA struggled to balance its budget, and regularly depended on the generosity of deep-pocketed supporters to bail it out.

Medvedow wanted a fresh start, so she pushed hard when the city announced it was looking for a cultural institution to build a home on a plot of land between the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse and Anthony's Pier 4. There was skepticism after the city granted the site to the ICA in 1999.

But a year after the opening, city officials and local business leaders say the museum has already helped bring change to the still largely undeveloped area. Just a few days after the ICA's public opening, Mayor Thomas M. Menino referenced the museum twice in a speech announcing his desire to build a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront.

Jon Schoeck, general manager at the nearby LTK Bar and Kitchen, has seen a dramatic surge in business, particularly on Thursday nights, when the ICA has free admission.

"Also, on the weekends, we see more families," said Schoeck. "It's definitely an attraction that brings people down to the seaport."

And in the next few years, it appears the ICA will have more company in the area. In September, developer Joseph F. Fallon broke ground on the nearly million-square-foot project on land that surrounds the museum.

"What the ICA has done is bring visitors from all over the metropolitan area to a part of Boston they would otherwise not have gone," said Kairos Shen, director of planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "I think people now can touch and feel the potential rather than saying it's just a place on a map."

Victoria Adjami, who runs a graphic-design firm near the ICA, had visited the old museum occasionally. But she's become a regular at the new ICA, and a member - one of 11,714 members, in fact, significantly more than double the number who had joined as of last December. (Adjami is such a fan she bought four memberships for clients.)

In the last year, Adjami noshed on veggies during members-only parties, took six of her staffers to the diCorcia show, and arrived early so she could get a seat close to the front of the theater for the October talk by musician David Byrne and evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

"There's so much to check out," she said. "It's not just about the one show."

Boriana Zaneva, a Boston-based artist, also joined the ICA for the first time. She praised the museum's free, once-a-month family program. Earlier this summer, she brought her daughter, Dora, 10, and three of her friends, to "Lights, Camera, Action," a hands-on activity connected to the diCorcia exhibit that gave children a chance to strike poses while using props and costumes.

Now, whenever she sees those other children, they "always ask me to take them back with me," Zaneva said. "And I had fun, too."

Kapoor and more

Hugh Davies was also impressed. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Davies visited in October. He still remembers being mesmerized by the Bourgeois show and by Christian Jankowski's "Point of Sale," a video piece that's part of the ICA's new permanent collection. He's excited enough about next year's Tara Donovan show that he's arranged to have it travel to San Diego after it shows at the ICA.

"Look, I'm in the business, so I go into these places with a pretty sharp pencil, and I came away from that experience very pleased," Davies said of his visit. "I'd also say that it's a huge mistake to judge an institution on their first season."

That said, the ICA's exhibition program has grown dramatically, thanks to the new space. Its budget has increased steadily, from just over $500,000 five years ago to $1.8 million. Baume has also been able to hire more assistants. Associate curator Bennett Simpson, who left this year for the same job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, has yet to be replaced. But by promoting Carole Anne Meehan and Jen Mergel into full-time curatorial positions, the museum now has four curators on staff. As recently as 2005, it only had two.

The ICA has had 14 exhibitions this year, including some that debuted with the opening last December. Before moving to the new space, the museum had, on average, five shows a year. The tripling of exhibition space has allowed the ICA to mix up its program, from larger and more complex shows such as the current "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial" to smaller, single-room projects and installations.

Arning said he's encouraged by what he hears about next year. In February, the museum will bring in "The World as a Stage" from the Tate Modern in London, a show meant to explore the connection between the visual arts and theater, put together by the ICA's former chief curator Jessica Morgan. And in May, the museum will open a retrospective of the work of Anish Kapoor, the sculptor who has become increasingly known for massive stainless-steel works installed in public spaces. Those include "Sky Mirror," shown last year in New York's Rockefeller Center, and "Cloud Gate," installed in 2004 in Chicago's Millennium Park.

In September, Baume and Mergel are organizing the first major museum survey of Donovan, a sculptor who constructs art out of materials ranging from pins to drinking straws.

South End gallery owner Bernard Toale is eager to see the second year of shows. The first-year exhibitions, he said, were not impressive. He passed when asked to critique "Super Vision." The diCorcia show had "too much stuff." The Bourgeois exhibition seemed "more borrowed than curated." And the current design show "didn't feel appropriate for the ICA."

"I think you give them the first year without even questioning anything," said Toale. "Year two you really start to analyze the programming."

Yet Toale considers the new ICA a resounding success.

"I'm still just so thrilled that they are up and running and made it through the first year," he said. "Almost anything aside from that hardly matters."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story about the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section misspelled the name of ICA curator Carole Anne Meehan.)

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