Mending the Social Fabric: Richmond’s New Institute for Contemporary Art

View of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU at the corner of Broad Street and Belvidere Street in Richmond, Virginia. Photo Iwan Baan.

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On a second-floor balcony of the new Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, a forty-foot-long signage-sculpture proclaims a message of inclusivity: “You belong here.” New York-based conceptualist Tavares Strachan’s words, spelled out in looping, pink neon script, are addressed to the busy streets of Richmond. They embody the central agenda of this non-collecting institution, which opened its doors on April 21. In various ways—including outreach, curation, and even architectural design—the ICA hopes to bridge art and community-building by promoting public participation in the creative and interpretive process.

The 41,000-square-foot building, clad in zinc and translucent matte glass, is designed by Steven Holl Architects. Located at the nexus of VCU’s Monroe Park campus, Richmond’s arts district, and the historically African American Jackson Ward neighborhood, the site—formerly a drab area of parking lots, gas stations, and buzzing traffic—marks the divide between the city’s black and white communities.

The modernist structure is a dramatic composition of light-flooded, irregular, geometric forms that radiate out from a central lobby space. A soaring, seventy-foot-high glass wall on one side, lit from a translucent membrane within, makes the façade glow like a lightbox. “Light is Steven’s favorite material,” as SHA senior partner Chris McVoy wrote in Forking Time, a 2018 brochure about the project. For his part, interim director Joseph H. Seipel, who was brought on after director Lisa Freiman’s surprising resignation in January, described the building as “sculpture on a grand scale.”

Inside, three floors of galleries are connected by a sweeping staircase and large elevator. The planes, V-shaped angles, and concave curves of the galleries flow from one to the next, creating an organic, holistic experience.

Holl drew inspiration for the museum layout from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” about the possibility of several realities coexisting simultaneously. He envisioned the structure’s branching galleries as a metaphor for the pluralistic nature of contemporary art. To put it another way, the layout subverts the old idea of a linear grand narrative of art history. Since no prescribed path is evident, visitors choose their own direction.

The inaugural exhibition “Declaration,” on view through September 9, complements this invitation to active engagement. Organized primarily by chief curator Stephanie Smith, it features sixty works by thirty-four artists from a range of cultural backgrounds.

For Passin’ on to others (2018), a work commissioned by the ICA, Detroit-based Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. distributed notebooks to ten barber shops and beauty salons in Richmond, asking owners to record sayings by their customers and stylists over a period of several months. The artist then hand-printed these aphorisms on multicolored posters. The wall-sized installation greets visitors in the lobby with statements like “You got to risk it to get that biscuit” and “Higher the hair, closer to heaven.”

“People might feel contemporary art is not for them, so let’s do something about that,” Smith recalled Kennedy telling her. And his initiative was duly rewarded. During the opening, proud salon owners smiled as they took selfies with their customers’ words displayed behind them. More copies of the prints hang in the salons, making this a truly collective, public art project.

VCU faculty member Sonya Clark also created a tonsorially-inspired commission, Edifice and Mortar (2018), located at the entrance to the first-floor gallery. Using black hair collected from local salons as mortar, she constructed a brick wall with words from the Declaration of Independence incised on one side. On the other, each brick is stamped with a stylized Black Power Afro and the Italian word schiavo(slave). A blue reflective panel leans against the wall as if to implicate viewers in the structure of oppression it represents. Clark’s wall text explains that the stamp “makes visible the invisible labor of our forebears.”

The most striking work on the first floor is Storm in the Time of Shelter (2018) by Baltimore-based Paul Rucker, which comprises fifty-two larger-than-life mannequins garbed in gorgeous fabrics of brocade, camouflage, and kente cloth. With the towering pointed hoods of the Ku Klux Klan and flowing suits, the figures, arranged in an X shape, seem both beautiful and sinister.

Vitrines, placed beside the installation, present historical artifacts such as a nineteenth-century branding iron used to mark slaves and Robert Wilson Shufeldt’s 1907 eugenicist screed The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization. An eighteen-page broadsheet offers horrifying background information about the artifacts and their use. Rucker’s research-based practice feels especially relevant in Richmond, the seat of the Confederacy and a one-hour drive from Charlottesville, Virginia, which was the site of a notorious white supremacist demonstration last summer.

The museum’s second floor comprises two rectangular galleries that protrude at an angle to each other. The works on this level stress the necessity for communication‑and show how quickly things go wrong when dialogue breaks down.

New York-based Titus Kaphar’s four-panel oil-and-tar painting Forced Out of the Frame (2016) depicts gradually darkening scenes based on the dash camera footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest. Ominously, the human presence of Bland and the policeman is kept out of the pictures. The first panel, rendered in sepia and black, shows a car, one door open, parked in the dark shadow of trees by the side of the road. In the next two, parts of the frame are coated with a layer of tar, as the dark shadow expands. The final panel, representing Bland’s metaphorical erasure after she was dragged out of the range of the camera by the policeman, is entirely black, the tar thick and viscous as a lava bed. The work is a bitter coda to the story of Bland, who police say ended her own life in jail three days after her arrest.

#Yell_Yell (2013), a sculpture by New York-based Cheryl Pope, wordlessly conveys the need for communication between opposing camps. The idea for the sculpture, which consists of two black megaphones on stands facing each other, grew out of an outreach project Pope initiated with Chicago teens, in which they meditated on their experience with racism and gun violence. An irregular form of black metal at the sculpture’s base resembles a pool of blood.

The museum’s third level—a vast, vaulted space with light streaming in from a large window—is intended for site-specific works. Lee Mingwei’s participatory project The Mending Project, which has traveled around the globe since 2009, currently occupies the space. For this edition, the largest to date, twelve hundred spools of colorful thread are mounted on the gallery walls. Their thin, nearly invisible threads converge on a table at the center of the space, where they are basted onto a stack of clothes.

At the table, community volunteers mend textiles brought by visitors while chatting with them. If the “mendee” agrees, the repaired garment is then left behind at the museum, piling up into a sculpture that represents the fruit of social intercourse. The project works as a political metaphor true to the fledgling institution’s mission, suggesting how our rent social fabric might be mended through committed interaction.