The ICA: Exhibitionists?

By Rachel Levitt Slade | Boston Magazine |

MONEY AND ART have always been both best friends and worst enemies. And that tortured relationship is arguably at the heart of the ICA’s play-it-safe attitude. Its lack of curatorial courage, in fact, can be understood as a manifestation of the institution’s money-centric board.

Back in 1998, Boston’s only dedicated contemporary-art institution was a scrappy artists’ haven in the Back Bay. The new director, Jill Medvedow, looked at the tiny building and smelled doom. The facility couldn’t handle big shows; it was barely able to stay in business. Ultimately Medvedow made the following pitch to board members: Pony up, or the ICA could perish. Magnificently wealthy art patron Barbara Lee stepped up with $5 million.

A fantastic start, but to do it right — to build the city’s first new museum in almost a century —  Medvedow needed to raise an additional $46 million.

That should have been a tough job. As I’ve mentioned, contemporary art can be controversial, and we don’t generally cozy up to controversy around here. 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. Add it all up, and you’d think raising money for a new museum would have been nearly impossible.

But in fact, the money was there; it was just well outside Boston’s traditional circle of art supporters. Instead, much of the cash came from the city’s financiers and venture capitalists, who were champing at the bit to memorialize their unprecedented success. Collectors, they generally were not. But many of the board members were — and still are — money people, such as Ofer Nemirovsky, who in 2008 stitched together a set of Commonwealth Avenue brownstones to create the city’s largest residence (24,000 square feet, including 15 bathrooms). And Jim Pallotta, whose 21,000-square-foot Weston mansion earned its own story in this magazine back in 2007.  

The money poured in, and the edifice was built. But of course, good business people that they were, these donors expected their millions to buy them a lot more than just bragging rights. They wanted control over the product, which in the case of a museum means more than just how the place is run; it means what art gets shown.

“Go out and get gold.” That’s the directive one board member told me has been repeatedly given to the museum’s curators. Find the hot artist whose work is highly valued, or about to be, putting the curators in the uncomfortable position of working like marketing scouts rather than art lovers. And so instead of choosing works that push cultural boundaries, they choose primarily based on hype potential, on who’s most likely to sell. The board member, who agreed to speak candidly with me on the condition that I not use a name, described the contemporary-art market as one big Ponzi scheme. “See,” this person said, “art has no intrinsic value.”

  • 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.