The Exhibitionists

When the new ICA opened its doors five years ago, the museum was heralded as Boston’s gleaming shrine to serious, provocative contemporary art. Instead it’s been home to a disappointing string of shallow, blingtastic displays.

Photo illustration by Peter Crowther; photograph by Steve Dunwell

Photo illustration by
Peter Crowther; photograph by Steve Dunwell

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.

WALKING INSIDE THE MUSEUM for the first time, through its monumental glass doors and into the foyer, the first thing I lost sight of was the water — blocked by, of all things, the gift shop. What those priorities would eventually mean for the shows, at the time I could only guess.

Fast-forward to 2010: One of the ICA’s most recent exhibits featured Dr. Lakra, a Oaxacan tattoo artist who draws tatt-like imagery onto pictures of vintage pinup girls, baby dolls, and other found objects. Vanity Fair called it “easy-to-love schtick,” and that’s where the intellectual exercise pretty much ended, unless you swallow the museum’s promotional statement that the work “challenges social norms by blurring cultural identities.” Sure. If you’ve never wandered over to the sidewalks in front of Berklee College of Music and dodged the dozens of smokers with (real) tattoos challenging social norms every day.

Compare Dr. Lakra with the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. In his performance, …and Counting, at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York last March, Bilal addressed the invisibility of Iraqi civilian deaths during the war by tattooing his back with a map of Iraq that marked the war’s casualties — 5,000 dead American soldiers signified by red dots in permanent ink, and 100,000 Iraqi deaths by dots of green UV ink. During the performance, people read the names of the dead. The work haunted long after it was over.

The Dr. Lakra exhibit was a shadow of Bilal’s. Its big takeaway concept? How cool and attractive graphics can be. And how buyable: Many of them were found on ICA-branded merchandise (from postcards to T-shirts) hawked to the crowds walking through that entryway gift shop.

More examples of flaccid art at the museum? Consider its biennial Foster Prize for local artists. One of 2010’s finalists, Rebecca Meyers, presented three short films that interwove various nature scenes such as whales, the moon, snow, and glaciers. Either the judges admired her courage (Isn’t it brave that someone born into the digital age is using film?), or they were pleased to catch an echo of Stan Brakhage, who presented the concept in a better light a few decades ago. Another finalist, Evelyn Rydz, is a decent illustrator who drew objects washed up on the beach to no particular effect. All in all, it’s occasionally clever and sometimes competent stuff, which leaves exactly no one’s mind blown.

And then there was the much-talked-about Shepard Fairey exhibit in 2009; the centerpiece was his “Hope” poster, which became iconic during President Obama’s campaign. The Fairey exhibit certainly got people through the door, but it didn’t give them much to think about once they were there. Like Dr. Lakra’s show, it was largely about graphics. Actually, Fairey’s work is controversial, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the art. Fairey is known for “borrowing” imagery liberally without compensating the original artist (as happened with said Obama “Hope” poster), but having zero tolerance when other artists incorporate his work into theirs. With Fairey, then, the debate isn’t really about art. It’s about money — who gets it and who doesn’t.

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.”

AND YET, I BELIEVE the ICA still has the power to be at the vanguard, if only it would take itself seriously. And there are signs it will. Hopes abound for Helen Molesworth, the new chief curator who arrived last year by way of the esteemed Wexner Center for the Arts and Harvard Art Museum — and not the least of that hope comes from Medvedow herself. Molesworth, Medvedow told the Globe, “is known for ambitious shows where she tries to put her arm around art that’s new but to also better help us understand where that art came from. Those shows are harder to do, they’re a bigger risk, and they cost more. But when they work, they are exhibitions that become part of the history of art.” Remarks like that suggest Medvedow knows the museum’s past five years weren’t game-changing in the way they could have been. That’s a start.

And those in a position to know say that Molesworth has the vigor to think on her own. Unlike her predecessors, she’s got a serious body of scholarly inquiry to suggest that she’s the real deal. If so, her energy may well give the museum the confidence to look outside itself, to empower the city’s hopeful artists, and to celebrate the ideas that kick us in the gut and make us ponder. Successful movements don’t happen in isolation, after all, or by playing safe. That pretty, lonely box on the waterfront could actually find itself with allies even more powerful than the local moneyed class that built it. And the real payoff will be in the kind of vibrant, contentious, noisy, and invigorated art scene our city deserves.