The ICA: Exhibitionists?
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.