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LA’s New Contemporary Art Museum Celebrates a Flexible, Collectionless Model

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, located in a converted clothing factory on the edge of the Arts District, officially opens on September 9.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles  (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — The past year has seen the opening of no fewer than three new major arts institutions in Los Angeles, beginning with the Main Museum last year, followed by the Marciano Foundation this past May. The newest addition is the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), which officially opens on September 9 in a converted clothing factory on the edge of the Arts District. In some sense, the ICA LA is part of LA’s current artistic and cultural development that began with the Broad Museum two years ago. In another sense, however, it offers quite a different model from its predecessors, favoring nimbleness and flexibility over stability and pedigree.

ICA LA Founder Elsa Longhauser

Described by founder Elsa Longhauser as a kunsthalle, the ICA LA is a small, non-collecting museum, whose origins lie in the now defunct Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA). After a lengthy rent dispute with its landlord, the SMMoA closed in 2015, and Longhauser, the museum’s executive director, took time to regroup before rebranding the museum as the ICA LA. “We’re not really changing the model,” Longhauser told Hyperallergic at a press preview yesterday, “we’ve just expanded. Moving from Santa Monica to Downtown gave us the opportunity to rethink, revise, and contemplate what we want to do.”

The architect responsible for the renovations, Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY, said his impression of the SMMoA guided how he designed the museum. “I looked into the history of the museum and realized how many artists from LA and beyond had their first show there,” he told the crowd on Thursday. Instead of highlighting the existing architecture — as Yantrasast did in his dazzling makeover of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple into the Marciano Foundation — he has created functional, open spaces that foreground the art.

Kulapat Yantrasast, architect at wHY

In many ways, the ICA LA could be considered the antithesis of the Broad. Whereas the Broad is structured around the 2,000 works in the founders’ collection, the ICA LA has no permanent collection. At the Broad, windows offer visitors a peek behind the curtain at the “vault” where art is stored, while at the ICA LA, there is nothing behind the curtain — virtually all the spaces are visible and accessible to the public. Even the ICA’s small staff work in glass-walled offices directly off the entrance. The Broad sprawls over 120,000 square feet, while the ICA LA takes up a tidy 12,700. The only thing these museums have in common is their free cost of admission (though the Broad does charge for some special exhibitions).

Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Horse and Red Rider)” (n.d.), gouache, colored pencil, and graphite on pieced paper, 34½ × 24½ in. (collection of Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, photo by Tom Van Eynde)

The ICA LA will open with an exhibition dedicated to the work of Martín Ramírez, a Mexican-born artist who spent the last 30 years of his life in mental institutions in Northern California, where he created hundreds of drawings. After emigrating to the US in 1925 to earn money to support his family, Ramírez fell on hard times during the Great Depression. He was picked up as a vagrant in 1931, and was institutionalized as a mute schizophrenic, some believe, simply because he didn’t speak English. The 51 works featured in the show are evidence of a man trying to find solace in a hostile world, while communicating aspects of his previous life. The drawings are filled with riders on horseback, religious figures, and architectural constructions, some of which border on abstraction, taken over by mesmerizing compositions of parallel lines. One particular untitled 1950 work bears a resemblance to David Hockney’s 1980 “Mulholland Drive” painting, with undulating hills and roads flattened into a compressed space.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, installation view

Also on view are two projects by contemporary artists that explore similar terrain as Ramírez, though in quite different forms. In an intimate project room, Abigail DeVille and a team of installers were feverishly working to complete her installation “No Space Hidden (Shelter).” The piece features hubcaps, garbage bags, mannequins, and debris collected from junk yards and swap meets, all swirling around a central steel armature and covered by a perforated tarp. “Something that’s been a continual point of conversation throughout the arc of her career is this idea of cultural erasure, invisibility and migration, people being pushed to margins of society,” explained the ICA LA curator Jamillah James. Referencing nearby Skid Row, which James notes is the geographic center of LA, the work arranges the collection of urban debris into an engaging but impenetrable cosmological map.

ICA LA Curator Jamillah James in front of Abigail DeVille’s work in progress, “No Space Hidden (Shelter)”

Outside the ICA LA, on the interior wall of its courtyard, LA-based artist Sarah Cain’s brightly colored mural titled, “Now I’m going to tell you everything,” attempts to link the landscape of the street with that of the gallery. Cain incorporates three-dimensional elements like backpacks, canvases, vinyl flooring, and a bench, with painted allusions to abstraction and graffiti. Although visually animated, the ambitious mural ultimately ends up being less than the sum of its parts, trying to do too many things without fully succeeding.

Sarah Cain, “Now I’m going to tell you everything”

What Cain’s mural does highlight, however, is the ICA LA’s aim to reach out into the world beyond the white cube. To this end, they’ve organized a series of programs that build off the exhibitions on view, beginning with bilingual exhibition tours and book readings, and a performance on Saturday by Los Jornaleros del Norte, whose songs express solidarity with undocumented workers. The museum has also designed an Agency of Assets initiative in conjunction with youth organization Legacy LA, which has placed 11 students from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, and Downtown into paid positions at Hauser & Wirth, Self Help Graphics, The Box, Vincent Price Art Museum, 356 Mission, and other arts organizations in the area. What the ICA LA has hopefully realized is that its relevance depends not just on what happens within its walls, but outside as well.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, installation view
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1717 E. 7th Street, Los Angeles) opens on Saturday, September 9. Opening week hours are listed here.

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