Staff Q&A with Amy Sadao

Amy Sadao

Peter Tobia

Amy Sadao doesn’t mind if crowds at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) are a little bit raucous. And she definitely doesn’t mind if people want to spend a quiet contemplative afternoon in the galleries.

In her mind, the ICA is big and rich enough for both experiences.

“People should really feel like it’s their space, so when you activate the museum by clearing out the visitors service desk, and having these amazing bands play and people sit on the floor or sit on the stairs—that’s what makes it alive,” says Sadao, the new director of the ICA. “It’s an interesting place to gather with people from Penn, as well as a wider audience from Philadelphia and beyond. For Penn students, staff, and faculty, it should become a destination, whether it’s to quickly look at something or to spend more time in exhibitions.”

The dynamism of the ICA and attention to and support of under-recognized artists long appealed to Sadao before she took the helm in September. Prior to Penn, Sadao worked as executive director of Visual AIDS, a New York-based organization dedicated to provoking dialogue about HIV/AIDS and offering support for HIV-positive artists.

Sadao began her artistic pursuits as an undergraduate at Cooper Union, which she calls a “hothouse” of people and ideas. “I applied with the idea that getting a BFA and fine arts training was the same as getting a liberal arts degree,” Sadao explains, “that an artist’s training should be very similar to any of the other myriad disciplines—to English, to journalism, to history, to cultural studies—that I was interested in. It would be about learning how to pose problems to yourself intellectually and learning how to come up with the solution.”

Sadao received a master’s degree in race theory from UC Berkeley, and has worked for some notable names in the art world, including the independent curator Simon Watson and Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum.

A New Yorker for the past 23 years, Sadao says she’s happy to be in Philadelphia.

“I’m constantly impressed by the people who are here,” she says. “Philadelphia is a city really rich in ideas and people and there’s just so much more to see.”

The Current sat down with Sadao just after the opening of the spring shows to talk about her impressions of the ICA before she worked here, the role of students at the ICA, and where she hopes to take the ICA in the future.

Q: You received your Bachelor of Fine Arts at Cooper Union. How did you make the transition from fine artist to curatorial work? 
A: I was able to turn the studio practice degree, with the generosity and support of this great small college and the faculty there, into something that met more closely with my interest in having dialogues with artists. Instead of having to make assignments each semester, I could present an art historical lecture or curate an exhibition, and at the same time, for others, I did photo assignments, and I made sculpture and I thought about and did performances. I think that, given the professors who were at Cooper Union at the time and given the students who were there at the time, a lot of what you are doing in a BFA education is learning visual responsibility and learning the ways in which we can parse and understand and experience artworks as a part of a political and social time.

Q: In your time running Visual AIDS, some exhibitions focused on the connections between art and social justice. Was this a natural progression for you, to run a place where those connections were so apparent?
A: I think my education at Cooper Union and perhaps my understanding of what makes contemporary art contemporary and what makes visual art and more broadly, art and culture important, absolutely has to do with reflections on the moments in which we’re living. Aesthetics don’t live alone and I certainly don’t think that one only has to look at any selection of contemporary art to recognize that artists are making these philosophical and intellectual [statements]. …
I think the connections between HIV and AIDS and contemporary art were almost always there for me and I think that’s true for many people involved in contemporary art or downtown New York or in metropolitan areas and at this juncture everywhere. At the time, I felt like Visual AIDS was one of the organizations that I was introduced to when I was a student. Some of the first working artists I knew in New York who weren’t my professors or weren’t my students were involved with Visual AIDS. They were either HIV-positive artists who were part of the archive project, curators, or on the Board of Directors. I always understood the necessity of addressing the pandemic and its impact on contemporary art and artists. It was like, yes, of course, it’s artists, whether they’re gallerists or curators or museum directors—these are the people who are devoting their time and energies to creating a first wave of AIDS activism.

Q: You had obviously heard about the ICA when you were living and working in New York. What were your thoughts about it before you got here?
A: That it was incredible. The most interesting exhibitions that were happening nationally and internationally in some ways----so many of them were coming out of ICA. That they were smart and ambitious and engaging. It’s always extraordinary to see the ways the galleries change, and their commitment to publications. When you’re further afield and you don’t come to the museum, you get to experience its work through its publications, and that was always impressive.

I think that what I saw from the outside was ICA is cutting a different path through contemporary art than many other arts institutions.

Q: How so?
A: I think—and I know this now, but it was apparent as a viewer—that the mission of ICA is to direct attention also to artists who are under-recognized, artists whose careers and works are deeply important and who we need to direct attention to and thought around their production. I think the history of ICA, presenting contemporary artists first or very early----from being Andy Warhol’s first museum exhibition to Glenn Ligon, Agnes Martin, and Paul Thek—this is steeped in the DNA of this place, the history of this place. It’s always been that. And it’s always been looking for opportunities to share these artists’ works.

Q: What you think is unique about ICA that’s made it this special place? Does it have anything to do with being at a university or Philadelphia not being New York?
A: I think all those things matter. It’s a location and this is Philadelphia. We know that and the idea that every institution responds to its location and the specificity of it permeates this museum. And its response is that we are a Philadelphia institution. I think proximity to New York allows us proximity to all of our great collegial organizations there and allows us a certain freedom, too, to look further afield.

Q: What’s the role of students here at the ICA?
A: We have a very active student board, which functions in line with our Board of Overseers, but also as a way for the students to experience a contemporary arts institution from the inside, working very closely with the staff with an eye to what it takes, how things happen in an arts institution. I think that was essential to my and so many of the staff’s careers, really. But I think it’s also developing patrons of the arts and integrating it. Some of the students may not go into the arts, but they recognize this as an essential part of their life and have a lifelong interest in learning and inquiry.
I feel the same way about our interns and work-study students. The students’ internships—that’s what we owe them. We owe them the answers to their questions. They are essential to the functioning of the ICA, but we are also here to help them understand what it takes, how an arts organization functions, why we make the decisions we do, and how we go about taking these impossible ideas and making them possible and then sharing them with a wide audience.

Q: What’s your vision for ICA?
A: This is still a learning time for me. This institution is celebrating its 50th year producing the most important, most provocative contemporary arts exhibitions and working directly with artists. Simply learning how this small ambitious museum has done this so successfully—that’s a lot of my job right now.
I have a vision that I think is shared within this museum: Museums are civic institutions. Contemporary art can be shared and can bring wider audiences together. You can create the most challenging intellectual exhibitions and present artists’ works, but skillfully create access points for people for a variety of experiences. I think that ICA can be a place on campus where students and faculty and staff will intersect with both arts patrons and artists in Philadelphia [and] a more general public, as well. And that’s an exciting prospect; that’s certainly different than what students are experiencing in the classroom. I think the museum brings incredible thinkers, whether they’re artists or curators or art historians and that’s a continual responsibility.
I’m interesting in having the conversations with artists around their artwork and having those conversations with wider and wider audiences. I’m interested in giving viewers and audiences opportunities not only to experience works in the galleries, but have something enriched when they come back, when they have those questions and are using our publications materials, gallery notes, and the didactics, as well as our website and capturing the interviews that you may not have been able to attend, giving you the research that can help you parse and digest and argue with the works that are being presented here. ICA has been providing contemporary arts for 50 years, but I want it to continue and to grow as a place that can be the beginning of people’s relationship with contemporary art. We’re all here because of arts institutions like ICA, because of relationships with art and artists and it’s what we’re devoted to. It’s what I’m most passionate about in my life and I want everyone to also have those experiences.

Originally published on February 21, 2013