The ICA: Exhibitionists?

By Rachel Levitt Slade | Boston Magazine |

LIKE SO MANY BOSTONIANS, I couldn’t wait to get into the new ICA when it opened back in 2006. Designed by a firm of architectural theorists — Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose impenetrable work made me feel smart just to know about it — the building promised to challenge all convention… not in a flashy Frank Gehry kind of way, but an intellectual one. Okay, so maybe the firm hadn’t actually built a single freestanding building yet in the U.S.; its quirky installations had earned it a slew of prestigious grants and egghead design cred, anyway.

So once the initial crowds died down, I went to see the place for myself. Traversing Fort Point Channel to Fan Pier on a cruelly frigid January day, I negotiated the crosswalks. And suddenly, there it was: the ass of a shiny new building spread across several parking lots and rising self-importantly from its asphalt field much like an Applebee’s. And by ass, I mean that unless you’re coming by boat, the building forces you to approach from its backside. Which means that to get into it, you have two options: Look for signage to an entrance, or wander until the place coughs one up for you. A young architect at the time, I decided to trust my instincts — and that is how I came to spend a solid 15 minutes in a freezing wind, circumnavigating the building to locate its front door.

Five years later, getting people in the door remains necessary to the ICA’s survival. And that’s easier said than done. Regardless of how prestigious a building it’s housed in, contemporary art can be a difficult sell. Warm feelings don’t naturally emanate for, say, a bone-and-gold necklace made of its creator’s own surgically removed rib (He Yunchang in China), or an unmade bed surrounded by the fetid detritus accumulated during an artist’s self-destruction spree (Tracey Emin in London). Toss in the requisite controversial short films (occasionally shut down by legislators) and animals in formaldehyde, and you can see why the buttoned-down Museum of Fine Arts is so beloved in this city of brick and stone. But that’s the job of contemporary art: to piss us off. It disturbs, gnaws at the psyche, provokes visceral reactions, and ultimately gets us thinking about the current human condition in a way that even the most sumptuous John Singer Sargent painting at the MFA cannot.

To get good art, however, you need a robust art community — galleries and museums to tempt artists with the prospect of financial backing. Collectors, in turn, feed off the scene; when their chosen artists get shown, and ostensibly bought, their purchases gain value…and that’s where the whole thing gets sticky. Because the producers of contemporary art are usually still alive, they’re able to keep turning out new pieces, which can lead to wild fluctuations in the value of their past work. And so when big-spending fledgling collectors get in the game, they can throw the market off balance.

Ferreting out the noise from the solid work requires a pro, someone who can balance the oft-competing pursuits of the art world: purity and money. Enter the curator to set the record straight. Considered the safeguards of the contemporary-art scene — arbiters of taste, explainers of the inexplicable — curators wield significant power in shaping how art influences both the world and the way we understand it. Which is why it’s so heartbreaking to watch our own ICA struggle to sink its dull teeth into the matter. Rather than create shows with the power to lure provocative art-world heavies to our brainy city, the museum has become a kind of Rue La La of contemporary art: It peddles brand names we could find almost anywhere.

The ICA is stuck in a field of chainlink-bordered parking lots, and that’s just the beginning of its isolation. With its new high-concept space and infusion of cash, the museum could have ushered in Boston’s next art renaissance. It simply hasn’t. And whether we blame the business-minded board; the curators who have gone after attention-grabbing but lightweight shows; or Boston’s inclination to settle for safe art, the result is painfully clear: The ICA has not done nearly enough to push new concepts onto our intellectual map.

  • Blaxidermy

    Waah waah waaah

  • rob

    I actually agree about the Fairey and Dr. Lakra shows, but this reads like a screed by a frustrated architect. It really took you 15 minutes to figure out how to get inside the building? And you’re admitting that? In print?

  • Kenneth

    How dare Boston Magazine, a Boston institution, attack the ICA, another Boston institution. Not nice! Don’t they know that artists are sensitive, well-meaning people, whose feelings are easily hurt?

  • Jon

    For someone who has to “negotiate” a cross walk, I’m not surprised she had difficulty with finding the entrance.

  • Jon

    Glass doors can be confusing. So can the glass elevator. I thought people were flying.

  • Chico

    I knew there was something that bothered me about that place since the hyped Fairey exhib. They just seem to show trite stuff at the ICA.

  • Alexander

    I would have to agree with the author. The first time I went to the ICA I could not find the door to get in. What? Boston gets a building with a ton of wasted volume for what? All of you who know nothing about architecture consider it beautiful to look at simply because it is so “different” than all the other buildings in the city. ICA needs some major changes.

  • A

    It’s too bad that this author defeats some of her legitimate points about the low-quality of the Fairey exhibitions by reeling off a litany of clichés about contemporary art. The YBAs aren’t causing a ruckus anymore and when they were it was all manufactured. That’s hack writing, which was confirmed by the summation that “that’s the job of contemporary art: to piss us off” If that’s truly the author’s feeling she’s out of touch.

  • Carolyn

    I agree the ICA has had its eyes too closely on the $$ for some time now — anyone remember the awful “Design Life Now” from 2008? But still, it’s an institution. You have to play your cards right to be an artist that gets to be famous enough to be in the ICA — it’s not always bad, but it can also make things less avant garde. If you want to find something really out there, visit open studios or go to emerging shows.

  • Carolyn

    I think you’re right about the front door. I could find it, but every time I go I think about how fugly the entrance is. I actually think the building is really beautiful, but that parking lot needs some HELP. Even just a walkway to the front door would be a good first step (and it sounds silly, but repave the parking lot!)

  • Barbara

    Last month the ICA was being criticized for showing work that had been banned from the National Portrait Gallery; now the author says the ICA’s art is too safe. OK, I agree that the building has issues and Fairey is lame, but the ICA has succeeded in pulling a diverse public into an art museum, and if critics are arguing about the art inside, I think that means they’re doing something right.

  • Dave

    Three years after it opened, the ICA still seems like the little jewel box on the sea in the middle of nowhere. My friends and I agree that its location is its most alienating aspect. I’ll agree that it has yet to find a curatorial voice among the other Boston museums and in the larger pool of similar institutions. Fairey was a low point for some, but it got people in the building and it was a decent retrospective because the visuals were nice. (I admit that my respect for Fairey’s art went up only after I saw EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP long after the ICA show closed.) The sleep-inducing Foster Prize is also an easy target, as is their lackluster permanent collection. On the other hand Tara Donovan, Damien Ortega, Charles LeDray and the recently-closed Mark Bradford were each stellar shows.

    I know that there are a lot of people working very hard over there, particularly in programming and education. If the ICA’s exhibits have failed to be as provocative or inspiring as some would like, maybe a shakeup in leadership is in order.

  • Stephen

    I particularly liked “Adding to the challenge, to get true art benefactors you need a thriving art scene, which Boston notoriously lacks. In spite of our excellent art colleges, the city’s comparative dearth of galleries, museums, and community support tends to send working artists packing.”
    Having lived near Hartford for years, I know what an art-deprived area is. Boston is not such an area.

  • Jen

    The ICA is definitely cool.

  • John

    Yes, Boston needs its art booty shaken up. But I wonder if Ms. Levitt Slade has seen all of the ICA’s exhibitions in the last several years. I would hesitate to call the new ICA’s exhibition program as merely safe. There have been more provocative shows such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s brilliant suite of large-scale photographs of “dancers” posing on stripper poles with all their goodies showing. The words “contemporary” and “provocative” do not have to only mean offensive to middle America or loud or aggressive. Contemporary art can rage quietly and poetically in such artists as the lovely Tara Donovan and the shiny yet seductive sheen Anish Kapoor, both intelligently edited and installed by team ICA in recent years.