The phrase “I is for Institute” is at once a declaration, a prompt, and a position. When ICA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, we considered our next chapter by digging deep into our archives and reflecting on the many individual artists, curators, and exhibitions that had shaped our history. Taking a step back from these granular investigations, we then began to ask more general questions: Why were we initially formed as an institute? Has the definition of an institute been stable throughout our history, or has it taken on different meanings and inflections over time? What does the notion of an “institute” conjure for a public? How might we question the parameters of an “institute of contemporary art” as a way to rethink how we approach our own institutional identity? Through an interrogation of the “institute” in ICA’s name we sought to better understand how we currently frame ourselves through language and also hoped it would lead us to consider conceptual alternatives that we have yet to imagine.
Above all, the “I” in I is for Institute acknowledges that institutions are composed of people and rooted in places. We are often asked if the different ICAs around the world are affiliated—they are not. Although the names might be similar, all of the institutes of and for contemporary art have their own distinct qualities and missions. Some ICAs have collections and some declare themselves kunsthalles; some are attached to universities or are modest independent spaces, while others are larger-scale private museums. The shifts between these institutional frameworks are also evident in different approaches to how contemporary art is communicated, exhibited, researched, and represented. And while there are certainly structural and programmatic differences between the many organizations devoted to contemporary art, there are also alliances, resonances, and synergies.
What initially began as a self-reflexive project soon turned to face outward. With our desire to think critically about the trajectory of our own contemporary art institution, within its specific moment and locale, we also felt the need to situate ourselves by considering how we relate to and differ from other organizational models. We recognized that I is for Institute is necessarily a collaborative project, one that can only be realized with the participation of our peers—the people who form our personal, social, and professional networks and the many individuals who shape institutions. We began by having conversations with our colleagues and asking them the same questions we asked ourselves. In these discussions we have tried to highlight the vision and labor that goes into running institutions—too often overlooked or unrecognized—as well as how they are informed by organizational structures and institutional histories. As we began our dialogues with colleagues from around the world we found that people were generous with their time and eager to discuss their work in institutions (and anti-institutions) of various scales. They spoke candidly about the challenges they have faced, the accomplishments they have achieved, and their hopes for both their respective organizations and the field going forward. Over long-distance phone calls, Skype chats, frequent emails, and in-person meetings, directors and curators offered invaluable perspectives on what it means to work in, build, and re-envision contemporary arts organizations today.
The following texts are lightly edited transcripts of conversations that were, in most cases, limited to one hour. The project is by no means meant to be comprehensive in scope, and if there is a methodology, it is one that has been developed through dialogue. Although we have made attempts to reach out to individuals working in variously scaled institutions in different global contexts, we are keenly aware of the limitations of only being able to conduct the conversations in English. We view this website as a repository for these exchanges that will slowly accrue over time. It is a record of the individual perspectives that often remain out of view, but that are instrumental in shaping how organizations are made legible to their publics. You are invited to read these conversations on your screen or to download them as printable PDFs.
In addition to the many inspiring individuals who volunteered their time to speak with us thanks are due to our many colleagues at ICA, notably Gee Wesley, former Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow, who co-developed the initial project in 2015. Together we conducted research internationally, forging dialogues and collaborations in person, lead the public forums that took place at ICA, and developed the preliminary scope of the interviews. This work was further enriched by the amazing ICA interns who worked on this project in different capacities: Maeve Coudrelle, Hannah Fagin, Corey Loftus, Xinyi Wan, Tonima Choudhury, and Jessica Bao. Special thanks are reserved for Laurel McLaughlin, the Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway Curatorial Fellow, Bryn Mawr College, who has played an essential role in helping us to conduct, transcribe, and edit many of the conversations featured on this site. We are especially grateful to the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage who sponsored the early research phases of the project; the residency exchange between our wonderful collaborators, Kunsthalle Lissabon in Portugal and RAW Material Company in Senegal (who are also due our sincere gratitude); and to the design team at Other Means for the development of this website, which we hope will be a useful resource for years to come.
The spirit of I is for Institute is one of camaraderie and collegiality, where the interest in collaboration far exceeds any degree of competition, and the desire to form new modes of working overcomes any attachment to preconceived understandings of institutions. While this project is driven by an optimism that there is something at stake for the people working in contemporary arts organizations today, it is also an acknowledgement that, specifically within a U.S. context, our relationship to institutions across all disciplines is fraught. We live in a time of increasing precarity, in which the stability of the arts is threatened by factors that are often beyond our control. Yet some of these threats are also rooted within and created by the institutional itself. Institutions are microcosms; they act as mirrors for the hegemonic conditions of society even as they offer opportunities for communal experience, utopian thinking, egalitarian politics, and radical experimentation. As such, this project is intended to serve as a beginning, rather than a conclusion: here is a means to generate an ongoing dialogue about the many articulations of what arts institutions are today, and hopefully what they can be tomorrow.
Dorothy & Stephen R. Weber (CHE’60) Curator
Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow