Happy birthday, ICA


How very urbane: Arty sophisticates. The young and the grunge. Silver-haired, ponytailed, and baseball-capped. Upstairs and down, an eclectic group chatted beneath works by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Laurie Anderson. Penn's venerable Institute for Contemporary Art seemed to smile as it welcomed visitors to its 35th birthday bash Sept. 17.

That the ICA's 35-year milestone was celebrated on the inaugural run of University City's jovial Third Thursday social event made it all the more festive. The beat of drill teams and drums wafted through the food-rich air on the streets of the newly unveiled Sansom Common. Inside the ICA, the Warhols seemed peaceful and the crowd grateful.

"The ICA brings a little piece of New York to Philadelphia," said Rochelle Sherman, a coordinator in Penn's fine arts department. "It's always stimulating for me."

And for all its devotees.

"I'm always coming back to the ICA," said Larry Becker, owner of Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Old City. "It's one of the few museum-level institutions in Philadelphia that deals with contemporary art on a rotating basis. It's important to the city. It brings in people from Philadelphia as well as international artists."

Public-art curator Marsha Moss said, "It's always been ahead of its time."

It's not easy putting together an historical look at an institution that has always had its eye on the future, but it was just the reception for which ICA Associate Director Judith Tannenbaum had hoped.

"It is more historical than what we do, but we wanted to celebrate our birthday," Tannenbaum said. "We show very contemporary work, and reflect what is happening in contemporary art. It's a lively place that will constantly surprise people - and challenge them."

Since it opened in 1963 in the Furness Library, the ICA has gone unchallenged as the only museum in the city devoted to presenting a forum for contemporary art. Its current "From Warhol to Mapplethorpe: Three Decades of Art at ICA" shows its muscle and proves its importance in the unfolding landscape of controversial and cutting edge art.

The ICA is getting ready for a new chapter in its history with the departure of Director Patrick Murphy, as well as some funding challenges. A glance out of its huge windows, however, shows cause for much optimism - Sansom Common.

"We're really in the heart of University traffic now," said Tannenbaum, hoping more Penn students and staff will keep coming back to the institution, which has always been a little better known and appreciated outside of Penn and Philadelphia.

"We really see it as important to serve the community and the University," Tannenbaum said. "We want everyone to know we're here, and we want them to come back."

The ICA, 36th and Sansom streets, is free to members, children and PennCard holders. Its new hours are Wednesday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Additional reporting by Libby Rosof.

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Originally published on October 1, 1998