The ICA: Exhibitionists?
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.”