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What Will Be the Ripple Effects of the ICA Boston’s Expansion Across the Harbor?

With its new Watershed space, the ICA has to navigate a delicate balance of bringing art into East Boston without displacing the communities and artists already there.

The main entrance of the ICA Boston's new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The main entrance of the ICA Boston’s new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

BOSTON — In its boldest move since it relocated from Copley Square to its current home in the now highly developed Seaport District 12 years ago, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) has leapt across the harbor, and developed a substantial new gallery space in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in East Boston.

Though open to high-level donors the night before, to museum members on June 30, and to the general public on July 4, the ICA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for and preview of the new building on June 22 for the press as well as for its staff and volunteers — closing the main ICA building in order to ensure that those involved in the institution’s operations could attend. Many local members of the press and gallery and preparatory staff took the ICA up on the offer, coming to cheer on the ICA’s director of 20 years, Jill Medvedow, as Boston’s Mayor, two local City Councilors, East Boston’s State Senator and Representative, and the CEO of the state’s Port Authority all expressed their faith in the value of the project to inspire budding young East Boston artists. They also issued a stream of formal announcements so exhaustive that it seemed plausible at times that the distribution of proclamations was some kind of conceptual art project.

The interior of the ICA Boston's new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The interior of the ICA Boston’s new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The new 15,000-square-foot gallery space, aptly named the Watershed, is anticipated to be a critical turning point in East Boston’s cultural life. Unfinished, said numerous ICA staff members, until literally the day it opened, it certainly promises to keep its closest (boat-dwelling) neighbors on their toes. There’s no question that the shipyard is brimming with a level of excitement unseen in the area since the launch of the first restaurant in the marina, Scup’s in The Harbour, a cheeky hot dog stand and breakfast joint that was beloved by locals during its too-brief lifespan of  2009 to 2011.

The main inaugural exhibition in the Watershed, a collection of video-based works by Los Angeles artist Diana Thater about how delicate our ecosystems are, does not exploit the space’s capacity or setting as much as an inaugural show could have. But there’s nothing wrong with putting the emphasis on the space itself for its debut. Some simple details of the building’s previous industrial uses have been carefully retained, and Thater’s introduction of strong shots of color into the gray and brick-hued warehouse space is impactful — especially in the part of the space identified as the Harbor Room, where a window casts striking blue light onto visitors. The marina’s history and some imagery of East Boston shot by local teens is also showcased in two smaller installations.

Installation view of Teen Perspective: Portraits of East Boston at the ICA Watershed (photo by Liza Voll Photography)
Installation view of Teen Perspective: Portraits of East Boston at the ICA Watershed (photo by Liza Voll Photography)

In terms of accessibility, restrooms are all wheelchair friendly and include gender-neutral options. All museum signage is bilingual, in English and Spanish — an important recognition of the current demographic makeup of East Boston, where, according to 2015 statistics, just under 55% of the population is Hispanic. (Equally important is the fact that Boston art lovers are keeping a sharp eye on this issue — the dearth of Latinx representation at the ribbon cutting ceremony was called out within moments by the ICA’s Instagram followers.)

(screenshot by the author)
(screenshot by the author)

Another key piece of accessibility is the ICA’s commitment to waiving admission to the Watershed in perpetuity. The institution also prominently placed links on the gallery’s web page (perhaps representing commitments to collaborate as well?) to local cultural organizations and artists associations, including Harbor Arts, which already uses the marina as a presentation site for its work.

The Watershed is accessible by boat for those coming from the ICA’s primary galleries — following exactly the same trajectory as was used to shuttle visitors witnessing 2015 Foster Prize winner Sandrine Schaefer’s performance piece “Wandering with the Horizon.” It’s also about a 10-minute walk from Maverick Station on the MBTA’s Blue Line, which is likely to be the route taken by most coming from within East Boston to visit the new gallery.

Installation view of the Shipyard Gallery at the ICA Watershed (photo by Liza Voll Photography)
Installation view of the Shipyard Gallery at the ICA Watershed (photo by Liza Voll Photography)

The last busy commercial enterprise you pass as you leave or enter Maverick Square to walk to or from The Watershed is the Colombian restaurant El Rinconcito Colombiano on Sumner Street. On the day of the Watershed preview, it was jam-packed with families getting a late lunch at 2pm, and still just as jam-packed at 5pm. The door was wide open to the fresh sea air and releasing tempting smells of Colombian cooking along with music and exuberant conversation. But no one inside was even aware of the new ICA building within spitting distance.

When asked if she’d heard about it on the radio or in any local newspapers or even by word of mouth, Marcella Munera, the daughter of El Rinconcito Colombiano’s owner, looked confused. She had no idea the ICA had any plans to do anything in East Boston, let alone build a part of a museum in the area. It was enough of a head scratcher that she needed it explained twice, before she could answer the question of whether that was something she felt she should have known about. “Yeah,” was the answer. “I feel like I should definitely have heard about it if that was going to be happening here. I mean if that is happening here. But I didn’t.”

To be fair to a museum that does a great deal with a relatively small staff, maybe it’s a lot to ask that they advertise on Spanish language radio or just walk up and let the folks hanging out at El Rinconcito know immediately how welcome they are. But once the ICA management gets a whiff of the food there, it’s likely to make the top of their outreach list (and perhaps their preferred caterer list).

Signs near the ICA Boston's new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Signs near the ICA Boston’s new Watershed space (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Another thing that could be added to an ICA list of some kind was expressed via a grassroots request along the pathway between the ferry dock and the Watershed. There, hanging on a traffic cone, was a handmade plea that the ICA think not only about how to get art over to East Boston, but how to help ensure that any new development spurred on by their investment in the area doesn’t displace the art and, much more importantly, the artists already there.

Whether or not the ICA’s move to East Boston will coincide with as radical a shift in landscape and demographics as its 2006 move to South Boston did in that area, the ICA does reportedly have plans to do work with the existing community through associations with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and the East Boston Social Centers. But the question of whether the Watershed will become a site of increased opportunity, or the end of an era for East Boston artists,(and for many vulnerable immigrants living in the area) is too hard to predict just yet. Though it feels like a watershed moment, it’s too soon to say for whom.

The exterior of the ICA Boston's new Watershed space (photo by John Kennard)
The exterior of the ICA Boston’s new Watershed space (photo by John Kennard)

The ICA Boston’s new space, the Watershed (256 Marginal Street, East Boston, Massachusetts), opens to the public on July 4. Its inaugural Diana Thater exhibition continues through October 8.

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