Back in 2014, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, presented their very first exhibition: an installation by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes called “Sanitorium.” In the exhibit, visitors were guided by volunteers who had been trained by the artist to act as “therapists,” and they participated in a variety of exercises based on methods such as Gestalt psychology, hypnosis, theater warm-up techniques, and conflict resolution exercises.
It was, in short, very far from the typical museum experience.
“It really set the tone for the organization in terms of how experimental and performative it was,” says Alex Gartenfeld, the ICA’s artistic director, of the exhibit’s impact on the museum. “It was the rare artwork where you have a real, physical expression of anxiety, vulnerability, or even violence, in the case of one particular piece where you were hitting a therapeutic puppet. It introduced a new way of engaging with art within our museum.”
That forward-thinking, experimental approach has remained integral to the museum’s character as it’s grown over the past five years. It's fitting that ICA's fifth-anniversary celebration taking place on Saturday, January 18, will include Reyes as a guest speaker.
"Our mission is the exchange of art and ideas, and Pedro really perfectly embodies that: his work is fun and engaging at times, but it’s also socially engaged, and deeply informed by art history and world history,” Gartenfeld says. The event, which has raised $2 million for the museum, includes a gala dinner honoring museum trustees Dean Colson and Manny Kadre, followed by an afterparty that will be headlined by the musician Cat Power.
For a young museum, the ICA has already made a remarkable impact and become a major destination in the heart of Miami’s Design District. The museum got its start in 2014 in a temporary space in the historic Moore Building before moving into its permanent state-of-the-art home in 2017. With a focus on pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and promoting under-recognized and emerging artists, they’ve introduced Miamians to work they might not have had the opportunity to learn about elsewhere in the city. Through their public education and outreach programs, they’ve brought arts education to underserved communities in the city, and formed partnerships such as a highly successful one with Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School in Little Haiti. They’ve also begun fostering the next generation of art world leaders through their Art + Research Center graduate-level initiative and collaborations with universities.
The ICA has also managed to remain completely free for visitors — a rarity in the art world, and a testament to their belief that the arts should be accessible to everyone.
The ICA has come to be regarded as an asset both by those who peek in as well as the artists who've produced the work displayed inside.
“We have introduced so many artists to the world stage at critical junctions in their career,” says Gartenfeld. Sometimes, that's meant highlighting emerging artists like the Haitian-American abstract painter Tomm El-Saieh, who had his first solo museum show at the ICA in 2017. Other times, it means renewing interest in a more established artist or giving viewers a chance to see their work in a new way. The museum’s 2018 survey, “Judy Chicago: A Reckoning,” “touched off a major groundswell of interest in her work,” says Gartenfeld. In addition to the exhibit, the ICA commissioned a new site-specific piece by the feminist artist called A Purple Poem for Miami, which spurred curiosity in her early pyrotechnic work. Most recently, the ICA’s Sterling Ruby show (still open until February 2) presented a comprehensive survey of the American/Dutch artist’s work. “He’s such a famous artist,” says Gartenfeld, “but this was his first solo museum exhibition, and so it provided, I think, a totally new way of looking at and understanding his work, which is what we’re here to do.”
The ICA is also consistently smart about positioning Miami within larger conversations in the contemporary art world. At the end of 2019, with All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, the museum gave Yayoi Kusama her first public presentation in Miami, exhibiting one of the artist’s famous infinity mirror rooms. In many ways, last year felt like the year of Kusama, finding her work everywhere from Bentonville, Arkansas, to Los Angeles, California, to a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. In Miami, the extremely popular exhibit sold an estimated 10,000 tickets even in its short run. “We’re definitely about thinking global, and part of everything we do is thinking about how Miami fits into a national and global conversation,” Gartenfeld says. “It’s very uniquely positioned and there’s extraordinary growth in this city, which is one of the reasons that I think the museum is so urgent and so relevant.”
Five years in, the ICA is still steadily growing, and they don’t plan to stop now. They have more ambitious programming in mind, more plans for expanding their outreach and maintaining what they’ve started.
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“We built a museum that is impactful on this community and it’s our challenge, as a relatively new institution, to make that impact carry forward and to establish a legacy for the organization,” Gartenfeld says. The museum’s teen program doubled in size over the past year, and this year they’ll work on a major expansion of the Art + Research Center. They’ll also prepare for an upcoming Allan McCollum exhibit that opens in March, the American artist’s first museum retrospective in the US, which will show selected works from 1969 to the present.
No matter what the next five years have in store, Gartenfeld says to expect the ICA to continue to stand out.
“There are a number of great institutions in this city, and that’s a testament to the growth of Miami,” he says. “One of the benchmarks that we set for the museum is to be different, and I think that over the last five years we’ve proven how unique our programs are.”
The 365 Party Celebrating 5 Years of ICA Miami. 7 p.m. Gala Dinner and 10 p.m. Afterparty, Saturday, January 18, at the Faena Forum, 3300-3398 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-534-8800. Tickets cost $100 to $1,000 via icamiami.org.