December 10th marks the opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston with a 9 am to 9 pm free open house for the public. After several years of laborious planning, construction, and enjoying a status of public controversy among those of us who have had our fingers crossed throughout, the building is finally up. This is the first new art museum to be built in Boston in almost a century, and the enthusiasm of those behind it has come out, most immediately in the architecture. This begs an old question once raised by Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Guggenheim in New York—granted that contemporary art is altogether a different beast, how should the beast’s encasing behave?
As a piece of contemporary work itself, the building is bound to one of the greatest question marks facing the institution of “art for art’s sake”—what about function? Will the building’s aesthetic ever get in the way of the normal, banal functions of a building? Suppose you climb a staircase that leads nowhere. Although the most ardent of the postmodern may clap and praise the freedom cup from which Diller Scofidio + Renfro have drunk, there may be others that just shrug and wonder what the point had been.
My own sympathies are such that, were the new ICA a bare structure with nothing to distract me from the architecture, I wouldn’t mind climbing up and down stairs to explore a building that is undeniably unique to Boston, and certainly a new force of influence in the global scope of current architectural design. I’d see it as a grand-scale installation piece, and snoop around its intricacies.
But a museum has a responsibility that installation pieces don’t have. A museum has to serve not only as a piece itself, but also as an appropriate setting for an expansive variety of contemporary artwork. The challenge in design, I imagine, must have been in trying to accommodate countless future generations of exhibits that the designers have not seen. Much in the way that artists will often create original work that is necessarily specific to one venue, a museum carries the burden of creating a venue that seems necessarily specific to a broad range of original works.
This brings up two additional questions: is the new ICA too loud to serve as a background? And could contemporary art (generalization being necessary in cases like these) actually benefit from a loud background and become more active?
My tentative reaction is to give the artist the benefit of the doubt—the artwork is active enough as it is, on its own. I believe the painter counts on a background of plain white walls to frame a painting, and so paints with that expectation. I think that installation art is largely about the artist’s architectural decisions, and I imagine he wants none of those decisions to have been pre-made by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. I think that part of the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim is in its simplicity and subtle complement to the work being exhibited.
So I’ll keep my fingers crossed until Sunday, December 10th, when, regardless of what we think, Boston will be taking an enormous step.