date published: December 4, 2006

Boston has long been home to some of the country’s finest art museums, with major institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum connecting art-loving Bostonians and out-of-town aficionados to some of the classic works of masters like Picasso, Monet, John Singer Sargent and countless others. However, fans of modern artists—the masters of the next millennium—may feel as though they’ve gotten the short end of the stick. After all, a new major art museum hasn’t opened in Boston for roughly 100 years.

All that changes December 10, though, as the brand-new Institute of Contemporary Art opens its doors on Northern Avenue, just steps away from the Seaport World Trade Center. This 65,000 square foot shining glass and steel edifice—more than seven years in the making—replaces the much smaller existing ICA in the Back Bay and places contemporary art to the front and center of Boston’s museum community.

“We feel that Boston is changing every day, and that the ICA is going to be a big part of that change,” says Paul Bessire, ICA Deputy Director for External Relations. “Contemporary art is all about contemporary life, and we feel that the new ICA is going to connect with a younger art audience and give people a sense of what is really going on in the art world today, right now.”

Founded in 1936 as the Boston Museum of Modern Art, the ICA has, in its lifetime, exhibited works by groundbreaking artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and many other linchpins of the contemporary art movement. The ICA bounced around a number of temporary homes before taking up a permanent residence on Boylston Street—tucked away behind a working firehouse—in the mid 1970s. At the time of the move there, Bessire says, the Boylston Street location was “the right space,” but ICA administrators and patrons soon became frustrated by the limitations of the cozy quarters.

“We were never able to keep a permanent collection due to the small exhibition space,” says Bessire. “There was no restaurant, a tiny little store, and no room or facilities for education programs. And the space itself—which is very interesting, architecturally—just became very difficult to install exhibitions in.”

Therefore, when current ICA Director Jill Medvedow took charge of the museum in 1998, finding a new home for contemporary and cutting-edge art in Boston was a top priority. Within a year, the ICA received a designation from the City of Boston to build on the site at Fan Pier, and two years after that, the architects were chosen, with the ICA bringing in then up-and-comers Diller Scofidio + Renfro to produce the firm’s first major museum and their first completed building in the United States.

Bessire says the choice of D, S + R was based on the firm’s past work and quality, not on some mind-blowing audition piece submitted to the ICA. “They did not give us a design, actually—we didn’t ask any of the four architects on our shortlist for one,” he says. “We didn’t want to be boxed in to a particular concept when we chose an architect—we chose them because we’d seen some wonderful designs they’d done, and because they were a smaller firm where we wouldn’t be down the totem pole in terms of their attention. We were looking for an architect that was ready to burst out on the scene, and someone who hadn’t designed a big museum yet. We didn’t want the Pritzker Prize winner, we wanted the next Pritzker Prize winner.”


The following exhibitions were chosen as the new ICA’s inaugural offerings, and will be on display when the new museum opens its doors December 10.

  • Super Vision: Examining the changing nature of human vision, this multi-disciplinary show features works by Jeff Koons (pictured above), Sigmar Polke, Anish Kapoor and many others that utilize optical effects and new technologies to explore the myriad ways we are able to see the world around us.
  • Momentum 6: Sergio Vega: The ICA continues its Momentum series, which explores new developments in contemporary art. The Argentine-born Vega has set up a room-scale installation, Tropicalounge, that offers his version of a “new Eden.”
  • The James and Audrey Foster Prize exhibition: A show featuring works by four artists—Sheila Gallagher, Jane D. Marsching, Kelly Sherman and Rachel Perry Welty—in competition for the ICA’s biennial $25,000 award recognizing emerging Boston-area artists.
  • Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall: This wide-open wall gallery in the ICA lobby features Chiho Aoshima’s The Divine Gas, a mind-bending mural depicting a giant girl in a lush landscape.

They may have found it in the shining glass box that now overlooks Boston Harbor beside Boston’s Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant. The structure features a wraparound dock made of South American Santa Maria mahogany, a motif that carries itself inside the museum to its large enclosed theater space—which will be used for performances of modern dance, music and lectures—then works its way outside again as it makes up the underbelly of the distinctive 60-foot long cantilever that extends back out over the water. All of this is in addition to features like the new ICA’s computer labs (where classes in digital art-making will be taught), a museum café serving a menu supplied by Wolfgang Puck Catering, a mammoth glass elevator at the building’s center, and a sprawling fourth floor comprised entirely of gallery space.

Given that the ICA has more than tripled the exhibition space of its last home, it was a natural decision for the institution to finally start assembling that permanent collection its curators had long desired. The only question was, where to begin?

“We made the decision that we weren’t going to go backwards and collect 20th century pieces,” says Bessire. “Trying to go backwards without creating notable gaps was too expensive and very difficult to do at this point, so we decided to look at the future. We wanted to create a collection based on artists who were exhibited in our shows. We knew that if we’d been able to do that throughout the 20th century, we’d have an incredible collection—so we said ‘Let’s not miss out on the 21st century.’”

The result (thus far) is a permanent collection of more than two dozen works assembled in the ICA’s fourth-floor east gallery, including works by photographer Nan Golden, English installation artist Cornelia Parker, digital animator Paul Chan, German painter Kai Althoff and several others. The collection offers Boston’s fans of contemporary art one of the best overviews of modern art and up-and-coming artists to be found anywhere in the area.

The new ICA also takes full advantage of its stunning water views, probably nowhere more so than in the Founders’ Gallery—a stretch of glass-walled hallway facing out over Boston Harbor that connects the permanent and temporary galleries. There, visitors can sit and gaze out at the water toward Charlestown and East Boston before completing their trip to the other side of the ICA’s exhibit halls—the west side gallery containing the museum’s regularly rotating series of temporary exhibits. (Refer to sidebar, opposite page, for more information about the ICA’s inaugural shows.)

“When it comes to artists we’re bringing into the ICA, we’re looking primarily for artists that haven’t had a major retrospective yet, someone who there maybe isn’t a large public awareness of their work, but who’s well-known within their field,” says Bessire.

Even the rooms at the ICA that are more functional in nature often boast some sort of visually arresting or artistic flair. Take, for example, the Poss Family Mediatheque—a sloped room resembling a college lecture hall that features rows of computer terminals which visitors can use to learn more about contemporary art. At the bottom of the inclined room, a large picture window looks out onto Boston Harbor—and, in a neat optical trick, from most vantage points in the room all that can be seen is water. No horizon line, no buildings, no sky; simply gently flowing water. It’s all part of the ICA’s understanding that technology and art go hand in hand, and there’s always room for both in any setting.

The new ICA is one of the first high- profile cultural attractions to open in the emerging Seaport District. In the coming months, more businesses and residences are expected to break ground and open here, and existing nearby attractions like the Boston Children’s Museum and Boston Tea Party Museum will have new renovations and additions to show off. But for now, the ICA is blazing a trail that they, and the city, hope will lead visitors and residents alike down to the water.

“We definitely see ourselves as ‘pioneers’ for this neighborhood, much as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner Museum were when they were built [in the Fenway] in the first part of the last century,” says Bessire. “We’re certainly hoping to put a mark on this neighborhood, and that this is really going to become a 24/7 neighborhood—where people live and work, as well as come to great restaurants or a museum like the ICA.”

And while the new ICA may spearhead a renaissance in the Seaport District, Bessire’s most fervent hope is that they will wave the flag—as they always have done—for emerging artistry and imagery that challenges audiences. “Boston has an illustrious past, but I think this city is very much about the future—with all the hospitals and universities here, there’s always an eye to the future. The ICA’s mission is to bring things and ideas to Boston that are contemporary and new. It doesn’t mean everyone will like every exhibition we mount, but we’re going to be provocative and challenging and interesting and hopefully, at the same time, give a little context for everything else that’s happened in art before.”

Refer to museums listings.

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