This spring, Virginia Commonwealth University unveiled its much-anticipated contemporary art institute as a space for performance, film screenings, artist-led conversations and exhibitions. Located in Richmond, Virginia, the ICA seeks to push visual boundaries and above all else, spark meaningful dialogue among community members with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Its mission is not only to showcase the vast range of art that is being made today, but to respond to the immediacy of political and social change.

Stephanie Smith (Rob Carter)

At the ICA, contemporary art intertwines with the acclaimed design of Steven Holl Architects, both integral to the way museumgoers experience the context of an artist’s work, so that each installation deliberately interacts with its physical environment.

Chief curator Stephanie Smith sat down with Smithsonian’s Second Opinion to discuss the ICA’s debut exhibition, Declaration, a show that spans 34 contemporary artists, who confront some of the most pressing modern issues of the 21st century, from race and politics to gender and climate change. In this conversation, Smith shares her thoughts on how artists can engage community members who might not otherwise interact with one another and how an artwork that makes someone uncomfortable can propel society forward.

What makes VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art distinct from museums like the Met or the Hirshhorn?

Nidaa Badwan, One Hundred Days of Solitude; Code:3, 2014, C-print (Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York)

Unlike those museums, we are a non-collecting institute for contemporary art. That is a specific choice. We’re part of a major urban research university, and we have a lively and diverse range of neighbors around us. At the ICA, we intend to develop programs that are linked to our local community, but also deeply engaged with global artists and issues.

As a non-collecting entity, we are meant to be a nimble, flexible institution for all the forms that contemporary art takes today, including projects that are performative and participatory. For us, it was really important that our inaugural exhibition Declaration is inclusive—in all the ways that you can think about what being inclusive means in art and our world right now.

What’s an example of an artwork in your current exhibition that engages the larger community?

View of the True Farr Luck gallery with artist Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project, 2018 in the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. (Iwan Baan)

“The Mending Project” by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei is an installation that we embedded in the soaring, cathedral-like, top-floor gallery space of the ICA. The space calls for an installation like Mingwei’s— which has appeared in other iterations, such as the 2017 Venice Biennale— but is reconfigured and responsive to Steven Holl’s architecture. Approximately 1200 spools of thread are arranged up the wall in patterns that engage the space quite precisely and create a dotted color field. There’s a very beautiful, long-hinged wooden table with two chairs designed by the artist. At one end of the table are a small pile of neatly folded clothes. On the other end: the chairs. That is what you see when the piece is not activated. But the heart of the “The Mending Project” is the way it’s brought to life by moments of exchange and connection between strangers.

To participate, you come in as an ICA visitor with a garment that needs mending, perhaps a sweater or sock with a hole in it. You sit down. And during the duration of the mending period, there is a stranger— a community volunteer— opposite you, sewing and talking. It’s crucial to the piece that the mending is imperfect, so that you do not leave with a flawless looking sweater or sock, but that that you have a physical manifestation of the encounter and conversation with someone you might not otherwise have met in your community. Watching “The Mending Project” come to life has been exciting to see, because you get a diverse group of volunteer menders engaged in all sorts of conversation with all different kinds of visitors.

It feels like contemporary art has a uniquely participatory element compared to what people might consider more standard fare in an art museum?

I think it depends on how you define participation. Many ancient artifacts that we see in museums were once used for spiritual rituals to connect people and communities. There are many moments in the long history of art that went beyond the artist creating objects.

Declaration has several artworks that might make some viewers uncomfortable, such as “WOMEN Words” by feminist painter Betty Tompkins, in which she posts potentially offensive language to the gallery wall. Is that part of a contemporary artist’s mission, reflecting back to us, some of the darker challenges of modern society?

Betty Tompkins, WOMEN Words, 2014, Acrylic on canvas. Detail of installation view: Gavlak Los Angeles, 2014 (Image courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery. Photo credit: Jeff McLane)

It can be an intense experience to view “WOMEN Words.” Her work is a powerful manifestation of a lot of the misogyny that is out in the world. The artwork is comprised of hundreds of small paintings that address perceptions about women. It began with a 2013 email to the artist’s friends and associates, in which she asked for words or short phrases to describe women— whether positive or pejorative. [According to Tompkins, among the most popular responses were “mother”, “slut” and “bitch.”] I walked through with a high-level male colleague from outside the museum, and I wasn’t sure what response he would have to the work. But he was quite moved by it, and said: Yes, these sentiments are out in there in the world and if we just sweep them under the rug— if we don’t talk about it— we’re never going to move forward as a society.

There are powerful messages that run through so many of the works in our inaugural exhibition. We will continue to support the social and transformative power of contemporary artists like Tompkins.

I would expect another installation that engenders strong emotion for viewers is “Storm in the Time of Shelter,” 52 mannequins in refashioned Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods?

Paul Rucker, Birth of a Nation, 2015, Mixed media installation, install view: Creative Alliance, Baltimore, MD, 2015 (Image courtesy of the artist and Ra Rah Photography)

“Storm in the Time of Shelter” by ICA’s artist-in-residence, Paul Rucker, has several components and it’s important to consider them together. The heart of the installation consists of 52 mannequins wearing patterned and colored robes, in fabrics ranging from kente cloth to satin to camouflage. It’s important to the artist that we don’t think of racism or white supremacy as something that just happens in certain communities or within certain individuals, but rather as endemic to America’s history and our present condition. It’s everywhere, and it’s often hidden or unacknowledged. That’s the reason that the first robe most viewers see is made of camouflage. Rucker also included artifacts, such as history books about the Klan that he’s personally collected. As part of the artwork, he’s also designed a free newspaper in which he provides a deeply researched introduction to the installation.

“Storm in the Time of Shelter” has engendered a range of responses, and sparked rich, substantial conversation in the galleries. The ICA will continue to support artists as they produce powerful new works like this piece, and create space for meaningful conversations about art and key issues of our time.

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)