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If you’ve been in Boston a while, you may remember the Institute of Contemporary Art (or ICA) when it was nestled next to the firehouse on Boylston Street. Back then, the institute was known for its temporary exhibitions.
But 10 years ago the ICA moved to the Seaport District, which allowed the museum to shift gears, show larger-scale exhibitions, and begin acquiring a permanent collection.
To celebrate its anniversary, the ICA is showing off nearly half of its now-242-piece collection in an exhibition named “First Light.”
“What this show does is provide the narrative threads to look back a little bit to understand that artists working today are not working in isolation, but really in conversation with the artists that came before them,” says Eva Respini, the ICA's chief curator.
Pieces Old And New
Of the 100 pieces in the show, half are on display at the ICA for the first time. To put the show on, the curators reimagined their top floor gallery space — spending two weeks knocking out walls and rebuilding — before arranging the art. In October, a few of the pieces will be swapped for others in the collection and some displays changed to show the work in a different light.
The exhibition shows both what the ICA has been able to accomplish in a decade, but also what it hopes to become. The museum seems intent on grounding itself, but that doesn't mean it's afraid of expanding the scope of its artistic vision.
As you enter the top floor gallery, you’re immediately confronted with Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire.”
Strings holding together charred pieces of wood dangle delicately from the ceiling, swaying — and sparkling — slightly. Respini tells me the artist created this out of remains from an actual case of suspected arson.
“Parker is an artist that takes everyday materials, mundane materials, and transforms them into something incredible and beautiful,” Respini says. Parker, a British artist, came to prominence in the 1990s and the ICA was one of the first places that presented her work to an American audience.
"Hanging Fire" was the first piece promised to the ICA's collection 10 years ago and is what Respini calls “a signature" of the collection.
Compare this piece’s long history at the ICA to one of the museum’s newest acquisitions: Kara Walker's hand-cut silhouettes, which has a name too long to write out. On view for the first time during this exhibition, the artwork takes over three walls.
A meditation on the characters and meaning of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Respini says it’s a commentary on racism and gender discrimination.
“For me, this is an incredibly powerful piece. I think it has resonance today as we think about violence, both within the U.S. and outside of the U.S., especially racially fueled violence," she says. “It’s really important to have a work of this impact and resonance in our museum for people to meditate on, think about, react to.”
As an important conversation starter about culture today, Respini says she thinks of this as an "institutional piece" -- an example of the type of work the ICA wants to collect moving forward.
“The subject matter is really poignant, very urgent and very timely. It’s the kind of work that sits well within a public institution where larger publics can come and enjoy and read and think on it,” she says.
While the majority of the pieces in the collection start in the 1980s, there are notably a few “historically significant” works. One of them is Eva Hesse’s 1966 “Ennead," which the ICA recently acquired.
It’s a piece with a notably minimalist style — repeated geometric forms, common industrial materials like ropes, metal and plaster — but moves beyond that and into the contemporary realm because of how it uses gravity and the architecture of the room.
“We don’t have a lot of historically significant work, so this provides a context for work being made in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s... ” Respini says. “No artist works in a vacuum, no artist is a genius thinking genius thoughts alone. All artists come from a lineage of those that came before them and I think a collection can provide that context to contemporary programming.”
For an institution that only recently adopted a collection, the 1966 piece shows the ICA's intent to provide context, giving audiences a lesson in the history of art in the present.
Lessons Learned In 10 Years Of Collecting
So why, in 2006 — after 70 years in existence, 12 different homes ranging from Newbury Street to Lower Allston and countless out-of-the-ordinary contemporary, temporary exhibitions — did the ICA begin a collection?
Pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol came and went. Originally named the Boston Museum of Modern Art, the ICA distanced itself from the eventual confines of the word “modern,” opting for the still-shapeless “contemporary.”
According to Respini, one of the reasons the ICA began collecting was to provide “a sense of context and permanency for our audiences.”
And as “First Light” proves, the ICA has created a stable base from which to keep growing. The exhibition gives the public a chance to see what the ICA has been able to accomplish in 10 years — and it’s substantial. In just the past year, the museum has grown its collection about 30 percent.
As it expands, Respini says the strengths of the collection are starting to take shape.
Namely, about 64 percent of the collection is work made by women artists. Respini notes this is mainly due to the 68 pieces in the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. It includes the works by Hesse, Walker and Parker — among others by Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas and Lorna Simpson.
Also notable is the number of photographs — a little more than one third of the collection — by artists like Boston's Nan Goldin and Rineke Dijkstra. Almost a third of the collection is dedicated to sculpture.
‘About To Become Teenagers’
Respini says the ICA is using this moment to look ahead. The museum hopes to take on what's called “curatorial-led strategies” to drive its collection moving forward.
“We’re broadening the conversation, bringing in artists that are not in the community,” she says. “We need to represent artists that aren't collected by people in Boston and by our trustees.”
She says to expect to continue seeing experimental new works in touring shows, but to be on the lookout for large-scale works like video installations that would be too large in a conventional collection.
“We’re about to become teenagers, I guess. Maybe we’re going to be really rebellious and take risks. I think that’s what the ICA does best.”
The "First Light" exhibition is on display through Jan. 16, 2017. The ICA created a microsite for the public with archival material and information about its artwork that will be updated as the collection grows.