THE ICA | Globe Editorial

Still a work in progress

March 6, 2011

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WHEN THE Institute of Contemporary Art moved from a cramped space on Boylston Street to its airy new home on the South Boston waterfront four years ago, it wasn’t just changing its address; the institution, then 70 years old, was setting its sights on becoming one of the most dynamic and influential exhibitors of contemporary art in the country. In this respect, the museum is still a scrappy work in progress, working through an expensive makeover at a time when charitable giving for the arts has all but dried up.

Yet signs are encouraging. Though the museum remains marooned amid a sea of concrete parking lots, the new ICA welcomed its millionth visitor last month. Who would have thought the city of John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent would ever flock to exhibitions celebrating graffiti and tattoo artists?

Despite the box-office successes, a recent Boston Magazine article criticizing the museum’s priorities has led some to question whether the museum’s new facade is covering deeper flaws within the institution itself. A related concern, raised in online forums about the ICA and a number of other new museums, is that dazzling architecture is coming at the expense of compelling exhibits.

Those fears are unwarranted, at least in the ICA’s case. The museum has struck an impressive balance between featuring up-and-coming artists and mid-career retrospectives. And by earning positive nods from curators and publications around the world, the museum is growing into its role of ambassador for the city’s art scene.

But it’s not quite there yet. The ICA should view this current round of scrutiny not as a slight, but as a sign of public yearning for Boston to loom larger in the contemporary art world — and for the ICA to take its place as a formidable Boston institution.

Over time, that will mean spending the capital to beef up the ICA’s nascent permanent collection. Until the ICA can provide the proper context through which visitors should view its rotating exhibitions, Bostonians will have to travel elsewhere to better understand the pieces on display in their hometown. But the upward trend is evident, and the ICA’s progress since moving to the waterfront, bodes well for its, and the city’s, future.