The Boston ICA, designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro (image from

The Boston art media are getting into a tiff, arguing if the newly redesigned ICA Boston is irrelevant-on-arrival. The Diller Scofidio+Renfro-designed home has actually heralded a new high point for a museum that is becoming one of the Northeast’s most dynamic, interesting contemporary art institutions.

Boston Magazine writer Rachel Levitt Slade kicked things off with a feature story called “The ICA: Exhibitionists?” claiming that the museum has yet to take itself seriously. After taking the empty parking lots and chain-link fences around the ICA as a metaphor for its programming (isn’t contemporary art gritty?), the article actually begins by denouncing contemporary art, and then Boston, as a whole. Slade cites Tracey Emin, among others, as shocking, distasteful, contemporary artists that the doubting public just can’t and won’t take to. “To get good art, however,” Slade writes, you need a robust art community,” but apparently Boston lacks that as well.

The ICA’s Fairey show (image from

Curators in Boston are too safe, Slade writes, they fail to “create shows with the power to lure provocative art-world heavies to our brainy city.” That charge is fair enough, though Slade’s own tone betrays a strange antagonism against that same “provocative” art she denounced earlier in the piece. Many of the exhibitions in the city are far too dull, I agree, but the ICA has actually been filling that gap well, even exceeding expectations.

Slade names the tattoo-based Dr. Lakra exhibition and the slick Shepard Fairey retrospective as picks too commercialized to be interesting. Yet both of these choices are completely nontraditional for a well-established contemporary art institution. The Fairey retrospective was a huge risk that paid off in pinning down a moment when Fairey was on top of the world, like his art or not. Seeing a mom wheel up her carriage to the HOPE poster and hearing her small child yell out “Obama!” in post-election 2009 was quite a timely experience. Less successful but still interesting, the Dr. Lakra exhibition was a vote of confidence in and a willingness to examine a scene that’s outside of mainstream contemporary art discourse. It’s unexpected, and it’s actually fun.

The ICA’s Roni Horn retrospective (image from

Judging by the article, Slade would seem to prefer a New Museum-like program of the same greatest hits of the present day. I can do without another Urs Fischer or Elizabeth Peyton show. Boston doesn’t need another contemporary art museum programmed after New York, and the ICA is doing well by preserving a unique voice. The museum’s current solo exhibition of Mark Bradford touches another nerve, and has been getting excellent viewer feedback. The 2010 Roni Horn retrospective was touchingly quiet and reverently curated. The single-gallery single-artist Momentum series has formed a great showcase for emerging artists from all over the world.

That the ICA is accessible doesn’t mean it’s not edgy or intelligent. The museum actually serves Boston’s contemporary art scene in a way far beyond institutions of other non-NYC, non-LA cities. Granted, the local-focused Foster Prize is mostly toothless and the permanent collection has to be switched up a lot more often. But as community fixture, the ICA more than provides for its audience.

Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe quotes an ICA spokesperson noting that the museum has had “1 million visitors” in the past four years. Globe critic Sebastian Smee writes that it would be “crazy to say [the museum] hasn’t been a success,” and notes its theater and dance programs, which are also excellent. It’s pretty clear that Slade is wrong, and weirdly bitter, about an institution that has only been a good thing for Boston as an art town. That the building has become iconic on a mini-Bilbao scale is just icing on the curatorial cake.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

4 replies on “Is the Boston ICA Already Dead on the Water?”

  1. The location is a bit off-the-path, but that will change over the time. The building is great and the programming seems to generally be top-notch too. I honestly wish Toronto had a contemporary gallery of such stature.

  2. Agree that the ICA is an amazing space, and a boon to Boston. I’ve discovered some fantastic lesser-known artists there precisely because they aren’t slavishly promoting the “provocative art-world heavies” of the moment.

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