Ladders and wooden planks were strewn across the floor while the entire building had a light smell of paint. The Institute of Contemporary Art was getting ready for another season, preparing to hold four new exhibitions, including the first major survey of photographer Barbara Kasten’s work.
Yet the ICA is more than a landmark on 36th and Sansom streets. A part of Penn’s campus under the Provost’s office, it collaborates with other schools for student involvement.
For students in Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s Art History seminar, the ICA is an extension of the classroom. Students spend the first semester of the year-long seminar deciding on their exhibition’s focus. In the second semester, they work directly with the ICA staff in different departments to have first-hand experience curating works for their exhibits. Students frequently travel to places like New York City and New Orleans for exhibition ideas, and also work with personnel at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to learn how museums of a larger scale work.
“To have the context to be able to get recommendations from professionals in the art world makes an enormous difference in being able to move ahead,” Shaw said. “One of the things students are exposed to is the complexity of doing exhibitions and the number of different kinds of careers that are possible in the world of art and culture.”
The student exhibits will be on display in the ICA in April.
The class was not the ICA’s first joint venture with Penn academics. The ICA also collaborated with the Biology department last year for New York-based artist Josh Kline’s exhibit “Living Wages,” an exhibit on the lives of Federal Express workers. Working with Penn microbiologists, Kline used clear plastic storage containers as petri dishes to contain genetically engineered bacteria and FedEx workers’ favorite snacks.
The ICA was the brain child of the former head of the School of Fine Arts George Holmes Perkins, who wanted the institution to be a non-collecting one. As the name suggests, the ICA focuses on what is “current” in the art world and tries to bring it to Penn’s campus. The museum has displayed works from artists such as Andy Warhol.
“It’s a mix of more established national and international artists, and those who deserve greater recognition or a chance to push their work in new directions,” Communications Associate of the ICA Rebecca Hunter said.
For Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow of ICA Liz Park, a normal day at the ICA is largely about checking emails, writing for ICA publications and — on the most exciting days — working with installation teams to coordinate new exhibits, choosing to feature varying amounts of artists depending on the size of the exhibition.
Shaw added that the ICA, as well as other art galleries on campus, including the Arthur Ross gallery, creates a very intimate and “doable” space to appreciate art without being overwhelmed by the large scale of other museums.
“ICA has been very focused on making itself part of the campus,” she said.
College junior and ICA student board member Elizabeth Barr said that her involvement with the ICA has been one of the most valuable parts of her Penn experience.
“The ICA has an amazing resource on campus but a lot of students have never been there,” Barr said.
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