By Chelsea Jackson, Siona Peterous, and Trevor Dickerson
With an inaugural exhibit that challenges the city’s Confederate history and racial divide, Virginia Commonwealth University will open its Institute for Contemporary Art next week, and it’s generating excitement not only in Richmond but also in national and international art communities.
The 41,000-square-feet Markel Center, where the ICA is housed, cost $41 million and sits at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets–the city’s busiest intersection, with an estimated 60,000 cars passing by every day. Supporters say the facility will be transformational to Richmond, offering striking architectural visuals on the exterior and exhibits inside ranging from the thought-provoking to the downright provocative.
The city’s only stand-alone gallery of contemporary art, which will open to the public next Saturday, April 21st, sits between VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and the historic Jackson Ward community–a point that for decades was the divide between black Richmond and white Richmond.
Joe Seipel, the interim director of the ICA (and former dean of the VCU School of the Arts who returned from retirement to assume the role), said the idea for the project has been around for decades. Seipel and the ICA team say they have worked to ensure that everyone feels welcome to come enjoy the art gallery, a goal he hopes to accomplish by keeping admission free.
During a press preview Thursday, New York-based architect Steven Holl said he looked to Richmond’s deep and complicated history for inspiration and incorporated certain aspects to bridge a gap between the growing presence of VCU and the larger Richmond community. Holl’s firm, known for specializing in educational and cultural projects, was chosen from more than 60 that submitted proposals for the building.
“This may be one of my favorite buildings I’ve [worked on] because it makes an urban statement, because there is a relationship between the campus and the city, and it also is a statement on the concept of time,” Holl said. Exploring the cavernous building, it quickly becomes apparent how much thought the renown architect put into every square foot of the institute. Holl says some of his favorite features of the facility are the specially-designed auditorium with a state-of-the-art audiovisual system and a steeply-pitched stadium seating layout as well as the elevator, which is large enough to serve both visitors and artwork and features intricately-detailed walls that take inspiration from the elongated slate in the institute’s outdoor garden.
The “forking” design of the building pays homage to a former train station that once sat on the site. Each of the four galleries intersects and branches out from the overall structure, much like the train tracks at Broad and Belvidere once did.
The relationship among time, space and race relation was a strong influence on the ICA’s opening exhibit, “Declaration,” said the institute’s chief curator, Stephanie Smith. She conceived the idea with Lisa Freiman, Seipel’s predecessor.
“After the 2016 presidential elections, myself and Lisa Freiman decided to reshape the ICA’s inaugural exhibition given the climate of our country,” Smith said. “We were inspired to create a project that we would speak and give a platform to a diverse group of artists whose works reflect currents in contemporary arts but also catalyze change, convene people across the divide and to speak to important but often difficult topics that are relevant here as well as our nation more broadly.”
Freiman abruptly stepped down as the institute’s director in January after five years of overseeing the planning phases of the project. In a press release at the time, Freiman stated it was time for her to resume other projects she had put on hold. Despite her absence, Smith continued with the vision that created “Declaration.”
The exhibit includes projects from more than 30 artists, many of whom were commissioned by the ICA and whose work speaks to social issues of the environment, gender inequality, race, and sexuality. “Declaration” features a range of mixed media platforms – from audio and film to painting and graphic design.
Expanding on one of his previous exhibits, Paul Rucker, the ICA’s artist in residence, created “Storm in The Time of Shelter” for the ICA. It features Ku Klux Klan robes in urban and contemporary fashions. The life-size figurines wear KKK robes made of colorful fabrics such as African prints and various shades of camouflage.
On the opposite end of the first floor is a massive wall featuring a series of individual screen prints. The piece is the work of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and was created with the collaboration of local barbershops and salons. Each print is a quote from a conversation that Kennedy overheard while in the shops, capturing the role these spaces play in the city’s black neighborhoods.
The diversity of “Declaration” reflects VCU President Michael Rao’s hope that the ICA will make the city an international destination.
“We hope to become through VCUs Institute of Contemporary Art a world-class cultural hub,” Rao said. He said the ICA will help “advance the arts and invoke human senses like they have never been invoked before.”
Editor’s Note: VCU Capital News Service reporters contributed to this report.