When the Institute of Contemporary Art opened the doors of its new Seaport building in 2006, it didn’t have a single item in its permanent collection.
Ten years later, that’s hard to believe.
Today, the museum has cemented its status at a must-visit spot for Boston art enthusiasts — and not just for the building’s architecture or stunning waterfront views.
The ICA’s curators have skillfully showcased the institute’s robust — and growing — permanent collection in their newest exhibition “First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA,” on display until Jan. 16, 2017.
An expansive and ambitious undertaking, “First Light” showcases both newly acquired works and pieces that have already been shown at the ICA, smartly combining them into a multi-gallery exhibition.
“We wanted to highlight the diversity of the collection in terms of what we have been able to achieve and collect in the past 10 years,” explains ICA Barbara Lee chief curator Eva Respini.
The exhibit is organized into four chapters, two of which will be replaced in October to showcase even more of the collection. “As we started thinking about the best way to organize this exhibition, we realized that instead of telling one monolithic story, we could tell many interrelated but separate stories,” says Respini. “So the idea of chapters — stand-alone exhibitions that are under the umbrella of this large collection exhibition — really developed as something exciting and interesting.”
The chapter that Respini organized herself — The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women — holds one of the most eye-catching pieces in “First Light”: a cut-paper tableau by prominent contemporary artist Kara Walker. The newly purchased piece spans an entire 48-foot wall in the gallery and features dynamic silhouettes of “Huckleberry Finn”-inspired characters against a stark white background. From afar, the characters’ energetic interactions look deceptively playful, but upon closer inspection, the violent, sexual and jarring images are obvious.
“It’s not a literal retelling of ‘Huck Finn,’ but it takes some of those characters as inspiration to talk about slavery and gender discrimination in the United States,” explains Respini. “It is an incredibly powerful piece because it speaks to our current moment very urgently as well as referring back to the history of the United States.”
The other “chapters” in “First Light” also explore experimental works by notable contemporary artists.
“Soft Power,” curated by Mannion Family senior curator Dan Byers, exclusively showcases flexible textile mediums. A massive Francoise Grossen work steals the show — thick swaths of weathered ropes lazily intertwine to form a beast of an “Inchworm,” as it’s titled. The “Soft Power” gallery looks more like a grown-up playroom than a stuffy art gallery — the works are large, malleable and pepper the floor as well as the walls.
The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women and “Soft Power” will remain on display until January, while the other two galleries will be reconceived with new art come fall.
“We’ve never shown the collection this way — this is the biggest and most ambitious collection show to date. I don’t think we could have done it even two or three years ago,” concludes Respini. “It’s really nice that we are in a moment where we can be so expansive.”
If you go:
"First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA”
Through Jan. 16, 2017
ICA Boston 25 Harbor Shore Drive
$15 general admission, free for members, icaboston.org