At the corner of Broad and Belvidere, one of the busiest intersections in Richmond and just a few blocks from the I-95 onramp, an architectural presence has been slowly materializing. This modernist building rose from the earth, first announcing itself with a skeleton of steel bones, eventually filling out its exterior with gray cast-concrete planks, clear glass, and a luminous zinc skin. Over the past three years, passersby watched as the powerful lines of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art unfurled themselves towards the sky, opening like the soft curve of a cupped hand. Unlike any other structure in Richmond, the city waited for the chance to see inside, to find out what the ICA was really all about.
Then, late last month on a sunny April morning, the first truly warm day of spring, the ICA opened its doors to the public with a community block party celebration. “I don’t use this word very often, but it’s kind of joyful,” said Joe Seipel, the institute’s Interim Executive Director, as he described the mood when I spoke to him on opening day. Richmonders crowded into the parking lot to partake in food, music, and community art projects, as well as to explore the newest addition to the Broad Street Arts District. With three floors and 10,200 square feet of gallery space, there is a lot to see—most importantly, ICA’s inaugural group exhibition known as Declaration.
With work from 34 artists, Declaration features many pieces that were commissioned specifically for the show, having been conceived using the exhibition’s title as a prompt. Meant to evoke multiple levels of meaning, that title serves as a statement of intent for the institution, a reference to Richmond’s history, and underlines the politically charged content of the show. “It’s a declaration of the first words of the institution,” explained Assistant Curator Amber Esseiva. She was responsible for commissioning work from many of the artists in the exhibition. “This is definitely the beginning of what will be the through line of the kinds of issues that we’re interested in pursuing,” she said.
Those defining first words are strongly political. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the curatorial team at the ICA made a conscious decision to take a more explicit direction with the show in terms of engaging with ideas of social justice and community inclusion. “[Former Executive Director] Lisa [Freiman] and [Chief Curator] Stephanie [Smith] decided that our opening exhibition really needed to take a shift to respond to a multitude of voices and positions and struggles that were going on,” Esseiva said. “We were charged to represent and to explore ideas of communication through turmoil, through different practices and different types of artists.”
For example, work by Paul Rucker titled “Storm in the Time of Shelter,” sprawls through the first floor gallery and confronts the viewer with colorful costumes in the pattern of Klansman robes. A number of works in the show are community-based including a radio project by Marinella Senatore titled “Estman Radio Project: Richmond.” The artist invited Richmonders to sit down and share their stories at an audio station set up in the gallery. “So that’s Declaration,” Esseiva continued, “It’s really about the idea of communication through turmoil and political circumstances and the failure of communications on multiple platforms.”
Part of the mission of the ICA, as demonstrated by the political bent of this exhibition, is to focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of those living within the Richmond community. “It’s really important to us. It’s central,” Esseiva said, emphasizing the fact that the ICA can be accessed entirely free of charge. To see an example of this ethos in the Declaration, look no further than Amos Paul Kennedy. His contribution to the exhibit, commissioned by the ICA and stewarded by Esseiva herself, consists of hundreds of letterpress-printed cards with sayings that Kennedy collected from barbershops and salons in the neighborhood surrounding the ICA. The jewel-toned cards are shown in a mosaic-style arrangement on the front wall of the gallery, allowing the stories of those community members to reverberate throughout the space.
Keeping in line with the community focus of the ICA, the already thriving Richmond arts scene is well-represented in Declaration. Many of the works in the show were commissioned from local artists like Andrea Donnelly. “I live in the neighborhood. I walk by that corner all the time,” she told me over the phone. “I’ve been watching it go up, and so to see it go up and knowing that I would be part of it, it just feels really special and a real honor to be one of the local artists that has work in that show.” Donnelly’s piece, “To the Various Futures (Not to All),” is a woven textile labyrinth that hangs from the ceiling, inviting viewers to walk between its gently wavering panels. Regarding her process, she explained, “I weave cloth and then I paint it with legible text. Then I unweave the text and reweave it so the text becomes illegible.” Donnelly’s piece is particularly relevant to the ICA, as its deconstructed text is from “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges—the very same story that Steven Holl, the architect responsible for the design of the ICA, credits as inspiring the building’s unique modernist layout. “It was just sort of serendipity,” she laughed.
When I spoke to Donnelly, it was a few days after the ICA’s grand opening celebration. I asked her how she felt upon finally stepping inside the building that she had watched rising up against the skyline for so long. “I was feeling like I did belong there, like it was a space for me to be in,” she said. “It feels like a real gift to the community and also it felt like a place to connect with the community.” She paused for a moment, then continued, “I feel really proud of Richmond and really excited for what’s going to happen with this and how our little art community’s going to continue to grow.”
VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art opened on April 21. The inaugural exhibit, Declaration, will be on display through September 9. Admission is free. For more information on the institute, including tour schedules, visit icavcu.org.
Photography by Brian Brown