Sarah Rifky, senior curator of the ICA at VCU.

Sarah Rifky named new senior curator of Institute for Contemporary Art

Associate Curator Amber Esseiva promoted to curator.

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The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University has appointed Sarah Rifky as senior curator and director of programs. Additionally, she will hold a faculty appointment in the VCU School of the Arts. She will start in early fall.

Rifky is a curator, art historian and writer, currently completing her Ph.D. dissertation on cultural infrastructure in Egypt at the History, Theory and Criticism program and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“I am delighted to join the Institute for Contemporary Art and to lead the curatorial team,” Rifky said. “I am excited to be learning with and contributing to the VCU community as part of the VCUarts faculty. I believe the ICA is a generative force for the Richmond community through grassroot programs and international collaborations. Especially as we navigate the challenges of a pandemic world, the ICA’s commitment to produce work by practicing artists is vital for art communities worldwide. My vision for the curatorial program will be shaped in dialogue with the curators at the institute and co-imagined with Richmond, a city that challenges the myths of American greatness.”

Rifky founded and co-directed Beirut, a nonprofit art space in Cairo, where she co-led a team that created and ran exhibitions, residencies, new commissions, talks, screenings, performances and pedagogical programs from 2012 to 2015.

For more than 10 years, she has held positions as a curator and educator. She was curatorial agent for documenta13, a quinquennial exhibition of contemporary art in Germany, in 2012, and co-curator of the Biennale Jogja XII, an exhibition that showcases contemporary art practice and discourse in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, in 2013. Most recently, she co-convened “The September Summit: Toward an Institute of Black Studies,” hosted by the Musée du Quai Branly, marking the inaugural program for Saison Africa2020 in France.

Rifky has lectured widely and is the author of many articles and book chapters. She also is the co-editor of “Positionen: Zeitgenössische Künstler aus der Arabischen Welt” and the peer-reviewed journal Thresholds 47: Repeat. Rifky taught modern art history and advanced studio seminars at the American University in Cairo. She was a guest critic at CCS Bard and an MIT Legatum and Jacobs Foundation Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship 2020-21. Rifky holds an M.F.A. in Critical Studies from the Malmö Konsthögskolan in Sweden. 

“Sarah is ideal for the ICA at VCU. She is more than an exhibition maker,” said Dominic Willsdon, executive director of the ICA. “She has long been committed to dialogue, to live programming, to writing and publishing — indeed to investigating contemporary culture in many different ways. She brings a transnational perspective, she thinks deeply about the nature of institutions and, fundamentally, she is an educator. Her motto is ‘every artwork is a school.’ I endorse that. I could not be more thrilled that she is joining us.”

Amber Esseiva.
Amber Esseiva, curator of the ICA at VCU. (Candice Patrice)

In addition to Rifky’s hiring, the ICA also has elevated Amber Esseiva from associate curator to curator.

A VCUarts alumna, Esseiva has been essential to the ICA’s programming since joining the institution in 2016. Esseiva curated select commissions from the ICA’s inaugural exhibition, “Declaration” in 2018, and curated shows featuring work by artists such as Corin Hewitt, Jonathas de Andrade and Julianne Swartz. Esseiva also curated “Great Force,” the ICA’s 2019 exhibition featuring new commissions and recent work by an intergenerational group of 24 artists exploring how art can be used to envision new forms of race and representation freed from the bounds of historic racial constructs. Mostly recently, Esseiva curated “Kandis Williams: A Field,” which is currently on view at the ICA until Sept. 12, and launched “Public Annotations,” an interactive, public program that seeks to reorient curatorial and artistic research. 

“Amber is fast becoming one of the most rigorous and innovative curators of her generation in the U.S.,” Willson said. “Her work has been central to these first three years of the ICA. In many ways, ‘Great Force’ was the keynote of our program so far. Current projects like ‘Public Annotations’ demonstrate what a study-centered approach to programming can be. It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with Amber. She has great projects currently in development. We look forward to making them public.”