The Institute of Contemporary Art: A Little Bit of Magic in Richmond, VA

Rendering of the exterior of the Steven Holl Architects Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, slated for completion in 2017.

A large cavity the size of a city block fills the southwest corner of Broad and Belvidere Streets, one of the busiest intersections in Richmond, Virginia. Excavated in June 2014, it is the future home of Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). When completed—now tentatively scheduled for 2017 after a series of construction delays—this 41,000-square-foot non-collecting institution will mount temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, visual design, and performance.  But the folks at the ICA aren’t waiting for the new building, designed by Steven Holl Architects, to get a start on their programming. The ICA has been occupying temporary spaces: last fall they displayed a pop-up pavilion, in the parking lot that’s now the hole, of an Aziz + Cucher video; an ongoing exhibition of rotating work by faculty and VCU graduates hangs in the storefront window of its current office space across the street on Broad; and this fall ushers in the traveling exhibition of visiting Israeli artist Nir Evron’s photography at VCU’s separately run Depot Gallery a space that usually showcases undergraduate and graduate student work.

SCAD - Derrick Adams

Yet, the institution, which is in the midst of a $35-million fundraising goal, is intimately tied to its future home, which on most days looks rather stagnant. There isn’t much visible progress in construction activity, a reality further exacerbated by the quick pace construction of concurrent university projects, including the $25-million VCU Basketball Development Center or the $50.8 million renovation to VCU’s Cabell Library, both set to debut this fall.

During construction, a plain white brick storefront a few blocks down Broad Street is serving as the temporary offices for the growing ICA staff: Lauren Ross was just hired as curator, and positions soon to be filled include directors of communications, education and community engagement, and an external affairs coordinator. Like the exterior of the long, narrow building, the interior is stark white–walls, ceiling, cubicles, furniture–with an elevated ceiling and several rows of cubicles. At its center is executive director Lisa Freiman. If the ICA were a biological cell, then Freiman would be the nucleus, moving at a nonstop pace. Freiman pauses little between words and connecting thoughts as she lays out her well-rehearsed vision for the ICA.

Todd Levin, art advisor and director of Levin Art Group, with the ICA’s Lisa Freiman and Lauren Ross at the ICA construction site.

Freiman emphasizes that people are the institution’s most important resource for realizing its vision to align the local with the global: “I researched noncollecting art institutions going back to the 1930s. I realized that when you don’t have a permanent collection, the most important thing you have are your people. Which is why we needed a well-respected curator.” Filling that role is Ross, who was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK, and prior to that was curator of the High Line and of White Columns in New York City. “We’re definitely working on the immediate local, the regional, the national, and the international level, so much of our work is through connections and relationships that already exist … combined, Lauren and I have over 40 years of experience in this field. We’ve been working on building our community locally through studio visits and presentations, by going out and meeting as many people as possible. My first two years here, I’ve hardly been in my office!”

As a part of the number-one-ranked public art and design school in the country, Freiman sees education “as the heart of what we do”: she recently gained tenure in the School of the Arts and Ross was hired as an assistant professor. Scholarly publishing will be one commitment. They’re also hoping to create a joint position between the ICA and VCU’s art history department, hiring someone to teach courses for the curatorial studies program, giving students hands-on curatorial experience.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

First, the current mission and vision statement must be reworked by the new staff members to better reflect the ICA’s need for “interdisciplinary education [as] a primary component while connecting students, faculty, and the general public to contemporary art.” Along with that, the ICA has taken on an aggressive marketing campaign with the help of students and faculty. One example, MoB (Middle of Broad)+Storefront is a nonprofit collaboration of design undergraduate students–they call themselves MoBians or MoBsters–who have planned a series of ongoing public interventions in order to raise awareness about social practices, urban renewal, and the ICA. Their self-proclaimed “happenings” have included a 100 red balloon parade, a TEDxVCU talk, and a series of bike-mounted posters ridden throughout the city.

Interior view of Middle of Broad’s storefront gallery at 205 East Broad Street.

Freiman and Ross also see the ICA as a key component to Richmond’s rebirth as a tourist destination and an affordable, cultural city for young creatives. With a laugh, Freiman explains, “I was asked recently, what’s happening in Richmond. With all of the food, new art, and breweries, it really is a renaissance! You can come down, stay at the Quirk Art Hotel [opening in September], come to the ICA, experience a theater, go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the Valentine Museum. There’s enough to keep you here for a whole weekend, extremely engaged and entertained.” The ICA hopes to tap directly into Richmond’s identity as a foodie destination by making hospitality a key component, offering a café with programmed ticketed dinners bringing together celebrity artists, chefs, and mixologists (think Rikrit Tiravanija or Ann Hamilton).

Really, they hope you stay longer than a weekend, pointing to all that Richmond has to offer for newcomers, recent art graduates, and established artists. Freiman says, “The big cities like New York have gotten so expensive that people are getting swept out. They now have to go into smaller cities like Richmond that are more affordable and,have a great cultural scene, and affordable space for artists to build studios.” Freiman points out that in major art cities, galleries keep closing, which has widened the discrepancy between elite blue chip spaces and artist-run or nonprofit entities. “It’s opening up a huge area for art to come and live in places, whether it’s Providence or Austin or Richmond or Detroit. The whole return to the local movement, over the last decade, makes these places even more viable. You just have to be willing to get on an airplane or train.”

Clearly, there are high expectations for what the ICA can do for audiences: a venue for socially engaged practices that merges the local and global, while creating a premiere education destination. As Freiman says, “I keep coming back to the word magic. I think it’s important to have a feeling of something special that affects you in the core of your heart, that makes you feel that life is more than the sum of its parts. There can be some pleasure and intellectual challenge. I recently went to the Björk show at MoMA, which has been so criticized, and rightfully so. But I just laid on these big couches in front of all the videos. I had this experience that made me feel alive and think about a million different things – infinity, and being alive – all these big ideas that we need space to experience big things in our lives. Hopefully the ICA will be one of those spaces.”

With Freiman at the helm, VCU has hedged its bets for living up to that hype. Even a pessimist can’t help but get on board with her vision, lean over into that empty hole, and see magic in the making.

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams is a PhD student and instructor in art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a regular contributor to Richmond-based Style Weekly and has written about art for AEQAIext.1708, and Artforum.com Critic’s Picks.