A New Contemporary Art Museum in Virginia Leads with Politics

Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU Markel Center at night (photo by Iwan Baan)
Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU Markel Center at night (photo by Iwan Baan)

AN ORGANISM IN RICHMOND: In the future we predict a large and significant living organism will begin to take shape at the corner of Belvidere and Broad … There are other organisms in Richmond, to be sure, but none quite like this one.

So writes Chicago-based artist Deb Sokolow in her pamphlet, “A Living Organism at Broad and Belvidere” (2017), commissioned for Declaration, the inaugural exhibition at Virginia Commonwealth University’s new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) — located at the corner of Belvidere and Broad streets. The pamphlet, available for guests to take, sits in a bin next to one of the two entrances into the ICA. It serves as an introductory statement reflecting the hopeful anticipation of a university, philanthropists, and staff, but also a larger city and region of onlookers.

The long-awaited museum, whose first exhibition features 34 emerging, mid-career, and established artists (all living, save for Felix Gonzalez-Torres), has been approximately 15 years in the making. Construction of the building began in June 2014. On opening day, Saturday, April 21, the museum welcomed 6,000 visitors.

View of the Royall Forum at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU (photo by Iwan Baan)
View of the Royall Forum at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU (photo by Iwan Baan)

Changes in leadership notwithstanding — the curator list cites Chief Curator Stephanie Smith, former director Lisa Freiman, Assistant Curator Amber Esseiva, Curator of Education and Engagement Johanna Plummer, and former curator Lauren Ross — there remains a cohesive curatorial vision to Declaration. Perhaps this is because that vision is one of change, diversity, and socially-minded activism predicated on fluidity of interpretation and the elevation of marginalized voices. The exhibition’s fluidity is partially informed by the ICA’s building, which was designed by New York-based Steven Holl Architects and inspired by writer Jorge Borges’s concept of “forking time,” from his short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941).

The over 40,000-square-foot building is in stark contrast to the surrounding architecture in Richmond. From the outside, it looks like a series of sleek grey rectangles — punctuated by floor-to-ceiling windows — stacked on top of each other, which converge on one end and fork out on the opposing side. Nearly one third of the building is an auditorium that cantilevers over one entrance. This compartmentalized exterior creates four long rectangular gallery spaces inside, and because of the large number of works included in Declaration, there is an overall crowded feeling to the exhibition with the exception of the top floor.

Betty Tompkins,
Betty Tompkins, “WOMEN Words” (2014), acrylic on canvas, detail (image courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery; photo by Jeff McLane)

“We wanted to create an experience that would encourage people to move around the whole building and that responds to the architecture,” Smith explains. “We recognized that the architecture doesn’t support a master narrative; you don’t go through a sequence of galleries from start to finish to follow one line of thought. Instead, the building supports multiple perspectives.”

Curtis Tawlst Santiago,
Curtis Tawlst Santiago, “The Execution of Unarmed Blacks” (2015), mixed media diorama in reclaimed jewelry box (image courtesy of the artist and Ebony Patterson)

The organizers encourage visitors to think thematically rather than chronologically about the exhibition. It is quickly apparent that questions surrounding race and social justice are paramount. Curtis Talwst Santiago’s handheld dioramas offer intimate encounters with violence, from the executions of unarmed black people to the immigration crisis. Sonya Clark’s “Edifice and Mortar” (2018) is a handmade brick wall mortared with the hair of African Americans and stamped with text from the US Declaration of Independence; each brick’s verso has the Italian word schiavo, which translates to slave, impressed inside an afro, referencing the transcontinental and transhistorical issue of slavery.

View of Beverly W. Reynolds gallery on the first floor in the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU (photo by Iwan Baan)

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