The missing piece: What the ICA will mean for VCU and the Richmond community

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Sydney Vick. Photo by ART 180.
Sydney Vick. Photo by ART 180.

Sydney Vick can’t wait for the Institute for Contemporary Art.

Vick, a 16-year-old junior at Richmond Community High School, loves art. She can’t get enough of it. During the last academic year, Vick spent three days a week, two hours a day, at the West Marshall Street home of ART 180, a local organization that provides arts-related programs for young people who live in challenging circumstances. Through the nonprofit, Vick has created pieces in a variety of formats and styles – painting, sculpture, drawing, mixed media, poetry – and no matter the medium, she’s found the work enjoyable and rewarding.

“I think art is a great way to express yourself,” Vick said. “You don’t have to be straightforward with it, and it can be interesting and beautiful and different. I don’t know. I just connect with it.”

Since her freshman year, Vick has served on ART 180’s Teen Leadership Group, helping to plan and run activities. ART 180 student volunteers are community-minded and attend and help out at local events, such as First Fridays. Vick has become increasingly aware of the arts offerings available to her in the Richmond metro area.

When she considers the ICA, which Virginia Commonwealth University plans to open in 2016, Vick gets excited thinking of ART 180 field trips. Groups of kids like her, enamored with art, going together to the Markel Center, the stunning ICA building, to experience the work of cutting-edge artists from around the world. They’ll walk through exhibition halls and sit in performance spaces alongside fellow visitors of every demographic. They’ll talk about what they see, and they’ll leave with those ideas bouncing around their heads to consider further.

“I think it’s going to be something a lot of people enjoy,” she said.

Boldly fastened at one of the busiest intersections in Richmond — the corner of Belvedere and Broad streets — the ICA will link VCU’s two campuses and be a key component of Richmond’s Downtown Arts District. The ICA will feature both exhibitions and performances, serving as a laboratory and incubator for the presentation of visual art, theater, music, dance and film by nationally and internationally recognized artists.

The ICA represents a milestone in Richmond’s ongoing emergence as a creative capital blessed with a diverse and thriving bounty of arts and artists. Chris Bossola, CEO of locally based Need Supply Co., said the ICA will “enrich and reinvigorate the local creative community.”

“The ICA will elevate Richmond’s already great standing as a hub for art and culture,” Bossola said. “It will complement our other assets and help give us a more well-rounded arts scene.”

World-renowned architect Steven Holl’s design for the 43,000-square-foot Markel Center promises to create a new city landmark. Jeff Hall, an art teacher at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, foresees a possible impact in Richmond akin to that in Bilbao, Spain, where the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum has helped to fashion the city’s international reputation. Joseph Seipel, dean of the VCU School of the Arts, has said the ICA will be Richmond’s Sydney Opera House.

Everyone involved with the ICA has ambitious plans for the institution, from top administrators to the project’s multitude of supporters. Their grand aspirations go beyond the ways that the ICA will strengthen VCU, showcase examples of the world’s best contemporary art and serve as an economic driver for the region. They also talk about its transformative social potential for the community.

Organizers and supporters say the ICA will serve as a place to spark new understanding and develop surprising relationships among a diverse group of visitors – from those as-yet uninterested in contemporary art to those already attuned to its charms. Students like Vick will be as welcome as internationally celebrated artists. The ICA will fortify the already-strong bond between VCU and its community.

Tom Silvestri, publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, went so far as to predict the ICA will become “a new public square” for the city where people will “go to be inspired by ideas, to be moved by today’s art and to be motivated by informed debate about contemporary ideas and problems in search of advocates and solutions.”

Model of ICA, view looking southeast. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects.
Model of ICA, view looking southeast. Image courtesy of Steven Holl Architects.

Lisa Freiman, Ph.D., director of the ICA, said she envisions the institution helping to expose both Richmond to the wider world and the wider world to Richmond.

“It’s going to be an eye-opening experience for a lot of people,” Freiman said.

Micheal Sparks, founder and president of Micheal Sparks Design in Richmond, said contemporary art has the potential to either push people away or invite them closer. The key is in the institution and what its leaders determine is important to them. Sparks has been an early supporter of the ICA and has spoken with Freiman and others at VCU intimately involved with the project. He believes the focus is where it should be – on building an open institution that encourages rather than intimidates. In fact, he said, it’s right there in Holl’s design, which will beckon passersby toward it from multiple directions.

Sparks believes the ICA’s location, intimacy, mission, prestige and insistent openness will lead to an institution with the potential “to heal wounds” and bridge divisions in the city. He said the ICA is as much an emotional project as a physical one. It is, he said, “heartfelt.”

“It will bring people together that wouldn’t normally be together,” Sparks said.

Freiman said forging connections is at the core of the ICA’s purpose. She pictures the institution as the center of a bicycle wheel with spokes reaching out in every direction, building relationships with social, cultural, educational and business interests – and with those that transcend categories altogether.

“We have to make ourselves relevant,” she said. “We have to pay attention to the community’s values and what it wants. Otherwise, we’ll risk being ignored.”

Hall sees the ICA as a powerful promotional and teaching tool that will prove revelatory for many. Some of the kneejerk dismissals that contemporary art receives often can be attributed to unfamiliarity, he said. For instance, Hall said art teachers are forever contending with their students’ doubts on the subject. Contemporary art’s formal invention and idiosyncrasies, its use of both the bizarre and the commonplace, can invoke initial skepticism. Classroom discussions about pieces occasionally get snagged on lengthy debates over what qualifies as art. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I could do that,’” he said.

For Hall and other teachers, the ideal tactic to confronting such a thorny topic is to take the students to the artwork in question. Most pieces, he noted, are much better experienced in person than on a computer screen or in a book. When they get in a room with the work, the detractors’ tone tends to shift and the discussion flourishes, finding its foundation and moving in new and surprising directions. The students get excited, as the work is suddenly alive to them, and they become absorbed in it and the conversation it prompts.

“When they see art, when they experience it, they start to understand much better what it’s about and why it’s interesting,” Hall said. “They start to talk about it in aesthetic and conceptual terms, rather than simply saying, ‘Is this really art?’”

There is no question that the ICA is going to bring in so many people who would not otherwise be exposed to art of this kind.

Hall said the ICA will trigger such moments on a widespread scale.

“There is no question that the ICA is going to bring in so many people who would not otherwise be exposed to art of this kind,” Hall said.

Freiman said that kind of engagement offers numerous benefits, stimulating imagination and creativity, sharpening awareness, and changing “the way you operate.”

Contemporary art is tied very specifically to the present, Freiman said, serving as a framing mechanism to explore with a prying, perceptive gaze the issues of politics, culture and society. It’s art that’s meant to be considered in the context of the world around it, and it’s intended for a large audience, ready-made to be debated and discussed and weighed. “The possibilities,” Freiman said, “are endless.”

Vick said ART 180 has become a kind of second home – her “art family.” Her experience has led her to form the belief that a devotion to art is a way of “making yourself a better person.” Freiman calls it “a way of living – a vehicle for experiencing the world.”

When Vick imagines the ICA, she sees more than another beautiful building. She sees a place where people can discover art the way she has, and find the thrill in it that she’s already found.

“It’s going to be great,” she said.


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