Over the past year, I’ve gotten an invaluable inside look into the conversations animating “I is for Institute.” In addition to transcribing and editing interviews and chatting with Alex and Gee about their findings, I was given the exciting opportunity to explore the ICA’s archives. Part of “I is for Institute” involves looking back to the ICA’s founding and early history, in order to think through its identity—then and now. Specifically, we sought to answer questions like: What can digging into the ICA’s early documents tell us about the meaning of the “Institute” in our name? Did our mission change over time? What were the original objectives and communities prioritized at the time of our founding?
I worked with three separate archives at Penn: the University Archives, the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and the Architectural Archives. Building on the work of my predecessor, Hannah Fagin, I dug through old issues of the Graduate School of Fine Arts Bulletin, trustee minutes, notes from board meetings, and internal letters and memos. It was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look into the kinds of conversations that arise when an arts organization is founded. Notes from an Advisory Board Meeting in 1967, for example, shed light on the initial (and enduring) dual purposes of the ICA—in Dean G. Holmes Perkins’ words, to “1. Bring art to the city [and] 2. Bring art to the campus.” Another archival source highlighted the ICA’s investment in Philadelphia, asserting that “there is a growing public interest in contemporary art, and in particular in the Philadelphia area.”
A particularly important find was a personal letter dated October 10, 1963, from Joel S. Berger to Chester E. Tucker. In it, Berger shares an anecdote about the naming of the ICA. He explains,
"Mrs. [Ti-Grace] Sharpless and Prof. Thomas Godfrey came to me some time ago, mid-August as I recall, asking that we prepare and distribute a news release to announce the establishment of the Institute. […] At the time of the visit by Mrs. Sharpless and Mr. Godfrey, the Institute had not been officially approved by the Trustees. There was some question whether it would be an “institute” or would be designated by another title."
This statement sheds some light on the questions that we have been exploring; namely, what it means to be an “institute,” as opposed to, say, a “museum” or a “center.” Within the context of a university, which had already founded Institutes for Environmental Studies, Urban Studies, and Architectural Research, it makes sense that an organization devoted to fostering learning and research in contemporary art would also be labeled an “institute.” This emphasizes ICA’s identity as a laboratory for knowledge creation, and de-emphasizes aspects of other arts organizations that do not pertain to us—a permanent collection, for example, which might be associated with the label “museum.”
A series of early mission statements in the Bulletin were also informative in tracking the ICA’s evolving audience. Early statements highlighted the ICA’s crucial role as a unique forum for the study of contemporary art in Philadelphia, while later statements emphasized the ICA’s growing international audience—through our organization of the U.S. contributions to the São Paulo Bienal in 1975 and the Venice Biennale in 1980.
These early documents offer a peek behind the curtain, into the enduring and evolving priorities that animate the ICA’s current form, and give us insight into the broader question of what it means to be an “institute,” within both a local and an international context.
Thanks go to William Whitaker at the Architectural Archives, Donna Brandolisio and Eri Mizukane at the Kislak Center, and Timothy Horning at the University Archives, for generously offering insight into the respective archives and scanning documents.