The Institute of Contemporary Art was founded in 1963 by G. Holmes Perkins, then dean of the School of Fine Arts, in order to familiarize students with what was “new and happening” in art and culture. First housed in the basement of the Furness Building (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) and then Meyerson Hall, it now rests at the corner of 36th and Sansom streets.
Current ICA Director Claudia Gould says Perkins felt students did not know enough about contemporary art and wanted to broaden their education. She continues his mission, introducing students to the work of living (and a few deceased) artists of all ages.
Gould, who came to Penn from the Artists Space gallery in New York City, says the ICA considers itself to be no different than a book. “We want to be used just as anybody would go to the library and use a book,” she explains. “We see ourselves as very integral to learning here.”
Gould visited Italy over the winter break as a six-week William Penn Foundation Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. She returned stateside just in time to open the ICA’s latest exhibition, “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” on display until June 6.
The Current visited the ICA recently to chat with Gould about art, controversy and an interesting tale about Penn’s connection to Andy Warhol.
Q. The exhibitions you feature are pretty diverse. Is that by design?
A. We actually try very hard at that. Right now we have a show of Maira Kalman, who is really known as being an illustrator. She’s done New Yorker covers, she’s done a lot of books, children’s books, illustrations and writing. She also has a year-long blog in The New York Times. We try to do things that are not just straight visual arts but more culture in a larger framework, like R. Crumb or Sun Ra. Sun Ra particularly spoke to us because he lived in Philadelphia for a long time. The Arkestra played here in our gallery last summer. There were 500 people here. It was really great. Not only do we show contemporary art and artists, we also try to have larger cultural exhibitions.
Q. Do you have students in mind when you decide which exhibitions to feature?
A. We try to bring in larger audiences that wouldn’t necessarily come in and the way to do that is through our programming. Those two exhibitions in particular that I’m talking about [R. Crumb and Sun Ra], we didn’t organize but we sought from other institutions that had organized them and we asked them if we could host them here. If our curators don’t have an expertise in something, we go outside and look for things that are of interest to us if we feel like there’s a gap in our programming. So we’re interested in bringing more artists in, but also attracting students who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in an installation by Trisha Donnelly but would really be wowed by seeing R. Crumb’s crazy, crazy kind of scatological, racy illustrations. He’s also from Philadelphia. We’re always interested in the Philly connection.
Q. Are there any limits on what you can show because you are at a university?
A. No. We don’t have any limits on our programming. If we feel that a work could have negative reverberations within the community or at the University, I would alert the Provost’s Office, for instance, and say, ‘You know, we’re doing a show that could have possible negative issues for Penn and we just want to let you know that.’ And we’ve done this a few times as a courtesy. I remember there was a Zoe Strauss show, she’s also from Philadelphia, and she photographs people on the street. In the big window in our ramp, there was a [large] picture of a young teenager smoking crack. We didn’t stop Zoe from doing it, of course, but because it was a teenager and this is not a good message to send out there, we just let the Provost’s Office know that this could be a problem. But there is no censoring. The University does not censor us in any way, just like they would never censor a book to be read by a classroom or anything like that. It’s actually no different.
Q. It sounds like you view being at a university as a benefit.
A. Being at a university, unlike a museum like the Whitney Museum of American Art, or the Museum of Modern Art, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or even the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we actually can do more. We can take larger risks because the mandate of a university is really freedom of speech and learning.
Q. Did the ICA’s affiliation with the University have anything to do with your desire to come here?
A. Yes. Actually it is very interesting for me because [at a university] your colleagues are not only within the museum, but you have the resources of professors and other museums on campus—Arthur Ross, the University Museum, Slought, which opened since I’ve come here. We try to work with as many as we can. We do 50 or 60 events a year that are collaborative in some way. It’s just a rich experience.
Q. Does the ICA offer any art classes to students?
A. Since I’ve been here, the staff and I started two classes, one in the Department of the History of Art called ‘Contemporary Art and the Art of Curating.’ The other one is called ‘Writing Through Culture and Art’ and it’s in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and Kelly Writers House. They’re year-long seminars that intertwine writing and art and contemporary art. At the end of the year, students in the ‘Writing Through Culture and Art’ course produce a publication of their writing, but they are very avant-garde and renegade sort of publications done around a specific exhibition that we’ve had. The students in the art history seminar curate a show in our project space. So it’s hands-on application, teaching people to be writers on art or young curators. They do learn a lot about art and we take them around to many different museums and galleries.
Q. I understand there is an interesting anecdote about Andy Warhol and the ICA. Would you care to share?
A. He had a show here, his first museum show. I want to say it was in 1964, organized by Sam Green, who was the ICA director at the time. There was such a crunch of people inside Furness, in the basement, that they had to take down all the art because there were too many people and it was going to get destroyed.
Warhol had to be taken out through the top stairs, kind of through the roof. We’ve always been a little renegade here. There are some great pictures from that time, too.
Q. A lot of contemporary art is viewed as controversial. Do you think it is, or is this just a label thrown at it because it’s different?
A. It can be. For instance, the National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t want to fund us anymore. They don’t like to fund contemporary art because they’re afraid of the potential of the work being controversial. Living artists have always been making controversial work, even though we may look back on work from 100 years ago and say, ‘What was the big deal?’ Some work is controversial and some of it isn’t, but this is not a new thing. It’s historically consistent. Artists are always pushing the boundaries.
Q. What sort of exhibitions do you have planned for the rest of the year?
A. [ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner is] doing a show called ‘Queer Voice,’ which is looking at the word ‘queer’ in many different ways. It’s about voice in contemporary art. It’s going to begin with Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, John Kelly and Ryan Trecartin and others, looking at voice. So while the work is visual, it’s focusing on voice, those many double, triple entendres that the word ‘queer’ can mean.
Q. How has technology in the 20th and 21st centuries changed or influenced contemporary art?
A. Photography is obviously a medium before the 20th century, but the invention of photography had a great influence on contemporary art. Film, video and television were also big influences, and of course the internet has changed everything. Technology going back the last 150 years or so has changed a lot and artists have been embracing these mediums since that time. Photography is a fine art. It’s not just used to document; artists have been using it as a medium for a long time. Video art certainly emerged in the early 1960s as well. Artists are always embracing the new—no matter what it is.
Originally published on January 21, 2010