Without proper gathering places, divided communities will continue to lack understanding and empathy for each other. When the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) opened on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in April of 2018, it was celebrated for being more than just a gathering place. Its architecture envelops spaces of ongoing discourse between black and white, and between city and university. The building is both an endorsement of Richmond’s potential as a place of communal understanding and a gateway to one of the best art schools America has to offer.
“We opened an incredible new resource for our community in an iconic building that will become a new landmark for Richmond,” said VCU President Michael Rao on the ICA’s opening weekend. It is VCU’s first major institution dedicated to the study of contemporary art.
Sitting among a neighborhood of low-rise buildings clad in red bricks, the ICA stands out as a structure from the future that VCU has come to represent in the community. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the ICA is a collection of abstract forms, fused together as if its pieces were assembled at random. On top of that, each form faces a different direction, as if they came from separate continents and smashed together in Richmond, a town that was once the historic capital of the Confederacy. What might look like an erratic design was actually intentioned by the architects to represent the many conversations taking place in contemporary art. Art comes from diverse places, and the artists behind it come from diverse backgrounds. There are no more grand narratives or Euro-centric dictum about what art is. Instead, the architects embodied the pluralism of our times, when conflicting perspectives, social consciousness, and a desire for civility are just a few recurring themes.
The ICA wants to be a place of constant reflecting on, learning about, and engaging with the issues that concern the soul of Richmond. It is not a place of artistic dogma, which is why it has no permanent collection in place (nor does it ever plan on acquiring any). The 41,000-square-foot building consists of four galleries, a 249-seat multi-purpose events space, a classroom, and four rooftop gardens with interior temperatures controlled by geothermal wells.
At night, this five-story lightbox shines as a physical beacon of hope for Richmond, sitting on the same street that once divided black and white communities. What was once an invisible barrier is now the focal point of Richmond’s contemporary art scene. Although Richmond cannot compare with D.C., New York, Miami, or Boston when it comes to art institutions, its art scene does date back to the mid-1930s. This latest addition to the city’s artistic heritage just wants to shine a light on all the cultural richness that gets ignored for all the wrong reasons. This is why the ICA chose to center its exhibitions around heavy topics like race, gender, the environment, politics, and social justice from the get-go. Fee admission encourages people of different backgrounds to wrestle with these topics, which can often be as polarizing as they are complex.