Why Does the Boston ICA Work?

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The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston/photo: Peter Vanderwarker

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston/photo: Peter Vanderwarker

I’ve been mulling over the recent Boston Globe piece about the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the success it’s had in drawing crowds. The Globe says that in the two and a half years since it re-opened in its new and much larger home the ICA has become “the second most visited museum in the region”. They don’t specify what the region is but let’s say they mean the greater Boston area, where the most visited is still the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where about 960,000 people looked in last year. In Boston, which has never been a hotbed of new art, getting 267,000-plus people out to Fan Pier to visit a museum that doesn’t have a single Monet takes some doing.

(Full disclosure. A: Boston ICA Director Jill Medvedow is an old friend from school days. But B: We pretty much never communicate except when I swing through town to review a show at her museum or the MFA. Ok, have I covered all the bases there ethics-wise?)

Let’s assume it doesn’t hurt that the new ICA building is by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, who have a gift for thinking about their designs as machines to promote human interaction, which is why their two most recent projects in New York, the renovation of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and the High Line Park, have become people-magnets. And it certainly helped the ICA attendance figures this year that its latest show is a Shepard Fairey retrospective, which opened not long after his Obama “Hope” poster had become ubiquitous (though it had been planned long before) plus — hey, you can’t buy this kind of publicity — he was arrested on the way into the pre-opening night party.

But it still comes down to a broader question of programming, which the ICA has done very adroitly now for almost three years running. Without dumbing down or playing to the peanut gallery in any way, it managed to come up with two earlier shows, devoted to Anish Kapoor and Tara Donovan, that were also sizable hits. Both of those artists could be loosely described as post-Minimalists, which isn’t always an easy sell. But they also produce work that invites looking. I was impressed at the number of people smiling and even laughing at the Tara Donovan show, with its galleries full of strangely beautiful accumulations of some ordinary item like plastic cups or drinking straws.

It also matters that in Boston the ICA has the contemporary art scene largely to itself. In the last few years the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has done some terrific historical shows — Gauguin, Hopper, Spanish art during the reign of Philip III and the current Titian/Tintoretto/Veronese show. But it says something that in the realm of living artists its most memorable recent show was devoted to Antonio Lopez Garcia, a 73-year old Spanish realist.

The only other recent monographic shows devoted to living artists who weren’t Boston-based were last year’s Rachel Whiteread survey, which was sparse and awkwardly mounted, and a choice little Cecily Brown show almost three years ago. It strikes me that Whiteread and Brown are also both British. (Brown lives in New York now but she’s the daughter of the late British art critic David Sylvester.) This may reflect the tastes, or just the social network, of MFA Director Malcolm Rogers, also a British import, but it makes you wonder if the MFA isn’t getting a bit too Anglophile. (Now that I think of it, they also have a long term installation by the Scottish artist Jim Lambie. Okay, Scottish, but that’s still the UK.)

Maybe when it opens its big new American Wing next year — by (whoops) British architect Norman Foster — the MFA will have the space, and the inclination, to provide the ICA with some competition.

You can find the Globe piece here.