Exploring the ICA

Richmond’s Institute for Contemporary Arts strives to create a permanent impression through temporary exhibits. 

Do I feel embraced? Agitated? Inspired? The cards in my hands wanted to know as I walked around the new Institute for Contemporary Arts in Richmond. I wasn’t sure how to answer. This place and I, we were still in the getting-to-know-you phase of our relationship.

This exercise in naming our reactions was an assignment given to the attendees of an evening talk about the new building’s architecture. Our instructions: Wander around. Pay attention to how the space impacts you. If a word on a card corresponds to what you feel, hold it up, snap a photo, and post it with the given hashtag. Come back in 15 minutes.

I watched as someone held up a card reading “Calm” next to a shallow pool just outside the institute’s entrance. Inside, a woman snapped a photo of a card reading “Agitated” in front of an exhibit of cartoonishly bloody, gloriously grotesque costumes designed for the shock metal band Gwar.

I eventually stood at the threshold between two staircases. Above me, the air was bright as evening light filtered in through translucent glass. Down the staircase below, the light bouncing off the pavement and through the windows gave the walls a darker, bluish tint. My mind went to the Greek myth of Orpheus descending into the underworld to rescue his beloved. I raised my iPhone, positioned it with both levels visible, and framed my contribution to our project: “Disoriented.” 

I meant it in a good way.

“Sine Body” by Julianne Swartz in Gallery 2 and installation by David Hartt in Gallery 3.

The ICA, which opened its doors in April, has a big mission. It aspires to be an anchor for Richmond’s booming arts scene and an internationally known cultural driver for the region. As a unit of Virginia Commonwealth University, it’s positioned to play a leading role in shaping VCU’s identity and to boost its already strong arts curriculum. It will contribute to the significant arts economy of the area and broaden public engagement with the arts. 

But don’t call it a museum. Because unlike a museum, the ICA has no permanent collection. Its charge is to present the works of living artists, some of them commissioned for this space. In a city where history always hovers, ICA’s function is eternally forward-looking. “This is a place that provides a platform for artists’ visions and that will lean into issues that matter in the world right now,” says Stephanie Smith, ICA’s chief curator. “One thing you can expect is that it will always be different. We want to work at the edge of the new.”

The 41,000-square-foot, $41 million Markel Center—as the institute’s new building is formally known—rises in glass and preweathered zinc on the edge of VCU’s Monroe Park campus. It sits at the corner of Belvidere and Broad streets—Richmond’s busiest intersection and one of its primary points of entry—and has two front entrances: one facing southeast toward the city, the other northwest leading to a placid café courtyard and VCU. ICA visitors coming for the first time will have no trouble spotting it among the sea of brick buildings and colonial columns that characterize Richmond. It’s safe to say that everyone who drives by will notice it. 

That’s by design, say Bill and Pam Royall, two of the ICA’s lead benefactors. When VCU’s decades-long dream for the ICA turned into concrete planning seven years ago, “The original thought was it was going to be built by the Jefferson [Hotel],” Pam says. “And it was going to be a brick building, and it was going to look like everything else.”

The Royalls and others helped shape a more ambitious and distinctive vision. “We wanted to leapfrog everything else out there and say, ‘This is internationally respected,’” says Bill.

The Royalls are longtime contemporary art collectors and supporters—they own the nonprofit Try-Me Gallery nearby on Main Street—and made a $5 million lead gift to jumpstart ICA’s fundraising campaign. They then co-chaired it with fellow art patrons Steve and Kathie Markel, who also contributed $5 million. By the campaign’s end, the institute had attracted more than a thousand gifts totaling $37 million. Richmond had shown that it was ready to embrace current artists’ most innovative thinking.

Adam Ewing

Bill and Pam Royall

“The ICA is an accelerator. It’s not just what they’re doing but what they enable others to do in response.” — Pam Royall

Not just ready, but eager, says Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Associates. The architecture firm, chosen from among 63 that responded to the request for proposals, has an internationally respected reputation; among its current projects is the expansion of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. During the discovery phase of the project, Richmonders told Holl and McVoy that they “want something new and refreshing,” McVoy says. “Several of the donors specifically said, ‘We want a building that raises the bar for contemporary arts in Richmond and gives inspiration to a young architect. This building is about students and the future. People should have just as much faith in the future as in the past.’”

The resulting building has drawn glowing reviews everywhere from Art in America (“a dramatic composition of light-flooded, irregular, geometric forms that radiate out”) to The Washington Post (“manages to feel both big enough to be grand, yet full of intimate spots”). It made the cut for Architectural Digest’s list of the “12 Most Anticipated Buildings of 2018” and Gallery Magazine’s “Nine of the Most Beautiful Buildings Opening in 2018.” On a list called “Our Complete Guide to the Biggest, Baddest, Boldest Museum Openings in 2018,” Artnet News listed the ICA as number one. 

Criticisms—that the building doesn’t fit into the neighborhood or “doesn’t look like Richmond”—wafted their way to the Royalls throughout the construction process. “I’m actually okay with the fact that not everybody likes it,” Pam says. “Just like contemporary art, it starts a conversation. If it gives people something to engage in a thoughtful discussion about, then it’s doing its job.”

On April 21, the day it opened to the public, ICA threw a daylong party. Its opening show, Declaration, was a statement of intent, according to Stephanie Smith, the chief curator. It addressed current political, social, and environmental issues through everything from sculpture to film, soundscapes to dioramas, even a two-story wall of letterpress cards making statements such as, “Life is not a problem to solve but a gift to enjoy.” “We wanted to come out right from the beginning with an exhibition that offered this powerful range of artistic possibilities at this moment,” says Smith. 

Just as the architecture did, the opening show landed the ICA in influential arts publications and newspapers across the country. “My favorite story is that The Wall Street Journal sent their architecture critic down one week and did a big story on it,” says Joe Seipel, who was the institute’s interim director when it opened. “Then, a couple of weeks later, they sent their art critic down to do a story on the artwork.”

Emily Smith at 1708 Gallery

“We’re seeing better engagement and new supporters.” — Emily Smith

For years, Emily Smith watched the development and construction of the ICA from a couple of blocks away at 1708 Gallery, where she is executive director. “My reaction was excitement seeing it take shape as a really welcomed addition to the arts scene,” she says.

The nonprofit 1708 was one of the earliest galleries on Broad Street. It was founded in 1978 by a group of VCU faculty, including Seipel, as a space for contemporary artists who wanted to take risks. Over four decades, it has weathered transitions and cultural changes, moving to its current location in 2001. In recent years, Emily has seen new neighbors crop up—a boutique hotel called Quirk here, a vegan-friendly ice cream shop called the Charm School Social Club there. And now, ICA. 

Rather than worrying about it competing with her gallery, she’s excited by how it scales up Richmond’s involvement in contemporary arts. “We’re seeing better engagement and new supporters” since ICA opened, she says. “ICA has done a good job of developing the conversation about contemporary arts in the community and bringing in new people.” 

Emily has also noticed an increase in foot traffic, as people visit the ICA and then amble down the street for coffee or ice cream and wander into the gallery. These are small-scale examples of a larger trend that ICA is already impacting—the arts play a significant role in the region’s economy. Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., attributes $360 million a year in economic activity to arts and cultural organizations in the greater Richmond region, supporting more than 10,700 full-time equivalent jobs in the region that contribute earnings of nearly $205 million to the economy. A stronger arts scene boosts not only the region’s cultural capital, but the old-fashioned kind of capital, too, and is helping drive Richmond’s resurgence.

“Every city’s got a vibe, and Richmond’s increasingly drawing a creative class,” says Shawn Brixey, the dean of VCU’s School of the Arts, comparing it to Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Nashville, Tennessee. He lived in San Francisco through the dot-com boom and then in Seattle through the growth of Amazon and senses some of the same energy here that he felt in those places. “Man, you really feel it, that this place is on the move,” he says.

Or, as interim director Seipel puts it, “It’s exciting as hell right now to be here.”

The impact on the city’s arts scene and broader reputation was a primary motivator for the Royalls, who live just a few blocks from the ICA. “That’s why I say the ICA is an accelerator,” Pam Royall says. “It’s not just what they’re doing but what they enable others to do in response.”

VCU’s arts programs and students stand to reap significant benefits, too. More than 50 students supplement ICA’s professional full- and part-time staff of the same number. They give tours, greet visitors at the front desk, answer questions and otherwise engage with visitors. ICA also supports several interns and two positions for graduate students. They major in departments across campus, including the arts and business schools, according to Lesley Bruno, ICA’s communications manager.

Seipel, who has served as a VCU dean, says that the ICA offers tangible benefits to current and future students. “Art students come here and see artists in the flesh, see their artwork, not just images of it,” he says. “They see how museums are put together and how museums work.” The benefits extend across the university, he adds, as students from business to philosophy, engineering, and the medical school have a resource on campus for broadening their artistic understanding. 

Dominic Willsdon, ICA director

“The ICA should be a place for an ongoing conversation about what’s new and different in the world.” — Dominic Willsdon

Impacts like these—civic, cultural, economic, educational—are what Seipel, Stephanie Smith, the Royalls, and others who helped launch ICA had in mind when they began shopping their vision to the people whose support it would need. Longevity in a place can make bold steps hard to envision, but Richmond and VCU have taken a sizeable one.

“When we started talking about it, we were saying we were going to do this contemporary art museum—at that time we still used the M word, museum—this contemporary art institute that was really going to change the city of Richmond,” Seipel says. “People said, ‘Yeah, really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, really. We’re going to do that.’”

Now that they have, the institute is now beginning to live into itself. With its opening show a memory, ICA is mounting new works and planning new programs. Its only constant will be change, so no two visits will be alike. 

“To be successful, we don’t just need people to visit, we need them to visit regularly,” says Dominic Willsdon, ICA’s director, appointed in September. “The ICA should be a place for an ongoing conversation about what’s new and different in the world. For that conversation to be as interesting and valuable as it needs to be, for it to produce new ideas and experiences, we have to include as many different voices and perspectives as possible. Inclusivity will be a key to success.”

Stephanie Smith, ICA chief curator

“One thing you can expect is that it will always be different. We want to work at the edge of the new.” — Stephanie Smith

In October, the institute launched a new annual commission series called Provocations. Artist Rashid Johnson “will fill a custom-built steel structure with a selection of plants, artifacts, shea-butter sculptures, books, textiles, and video,” as an ICA media release describes it. “Visitors will be able to walk through the piece, immersing themselves in details or lingering within seating areas.” It’s on view through July 7, 2019. “It’ll be here, we hope that everyone will fall in love with it, and then it will go away,” says Stephanie. “Hopefully everyone will then be absolutely enamored with the next project as well.” 

Unlike a museum with its canonical collection, impermanence is part of the ICA’s appeal, says Emily. This approach only makes sense says the Royalls—“The world is changing,” says Pam—but all art was once contemporary art, reminds Bill. He says his focus on contemporary art is a way of being part of art history as it happens, a position he says he is privileged to have and Richmond has earned.

“This town deserves something very special,” he says. 

The Basics

Visit VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art at 601 W. Broad Street, Richmond. It’s open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday through Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays and during First Fridays. Closed Mondays. The Café opens at 8 a.m. Admission is free, although some programs may require advance registration. ICAVCU.org


The ICA was designed to meet LEED Gold Certification. Its environmentally friendly features include:

  • Abundant clear and translucent glass walls and skylights that lessen reliance on nonrenewable energy sources. 
  • Forty-three geothermal wells drilled to depths of 400 to 600 feet below ground that provide heating and cooling energy.
  • More than 8,000 square feet of green roofs absorb stormwater, provide insulation during cold months, and reduce the creation of urban heat in summer. 
  • Permeable landscapes with six species of native plants. 
  • 3,350 square feet of double-paned glass walls that reduce heat transfer out during cold months and heat transfer in during hot months.

Upcoming exhibitions:

  • Provocations: Rashid Johnson, through July 7: A commissioned,large-scale installation that responds to the expanse of the top-floor exhibition space.
  • The Power of the Narrator, 2019: Premiere of an original performance piece by Paul Rucker.
  • Ongoing programming includes the ICA Cinema Series, mindfulness meditation, lectures, artist conversations, and tours, and monthly First Friday events.

This article originally appeared in our December 2018 issue.

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