New Perspective

VCU opens institute for contemporary art.

The ICA overlooks a reflecting pool, which mirrors the striking architecture.

Positioned on the corner of Belvidere and Broad Streets, Richmond’s busiest intersection, the new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at Virginia Commonwealth University is a striking visual statement that commands its urban setting and serves as both a gateway to the VCU campus and the link that connects the university to the city. 

This remarkable structure that is paean to art, design and community radiates calm. You notice this first visually as your eyes catch sight of its arresting, cooly-hued mass within the frenetic environment surrounding it. This is underscored as soon as you enter the building and the door closes behind you, taking with it the racket of the street.

The building was designed by superstar New York architect Steven Holl who took as his inspiration Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of the Forking Paths, a kind of parable that explores the notion that life is composed of divergent routes with an infinite number of choices and outcomes. From this, Holl conceived his idea of “Forking Time,” which posits that there are many parallel times, not just one single hegemonic view of history, or in this case, art history. It is an apt metaphor for contemporary art, which voices a plurality of perspectives. 

The flexibility and flow of time inherent in the Borges story also informs the ICA space pragmatically. The four galleries can be configured in various ways, and movement through the space is both fluid and subject to personal choice. One person may take the elevator to the top and move downwards; others may start at the bottom and work their way up.

Holl explains the central metaphor thus: “The whole building is about ‘beyond.’ Doing something and having more because of it. The fact that there are two entrances—it’s like Janus—the two faces—two fronts—‘this’ and then ‘that.’ All the way through the building, you’ll find the possible other.” 

The interior space is both intimate and grand with white walls flanked by concrete floors and exposed concrete beams and planks that are brutishly handsome and practical. It’s an uplifting experience being in the soaring spaces with great expanses of curved walls that undulate sensually. Yet, one never feels too much removed from the art or overwhelmed by the space. 

A 240-seat auditorium can accommodate film screenings, lectures and performances. Just outside of the ground floor café is the sculpture garden, referred to as the “thinking field.” At the far end, a reflecting pool paved in river stones and filled with recycled rain water provides a shiny, black point of focus. On the second floor, a terrace provides outdoor space and a venue for site-specific work.

From announcement to completion, the project took seven years and cost a hefty $41 million. Not only is the architectural design superb, but the 41,000-square foot building was constructed in an environmentally responsible manner, meeting LEED Gold Building standards in terms of materials and systems. It relies on geothermal wells to regulate the interior temperature, and the structure features four green roofs, including the terrace. The exterior, sheathed in a combination of clear and translucent glass and 100 percent recyclable titanium zinc panels (of which 40 percent is recycled), is the color of vapor or rain. So, the building has the curious effect of both mass and immateriality. At night, the structure glows like an apparition. 

More than 1,000 gifts from individual donors, corporations, and private foundations were made to the ICA capital campaign. Major donors include Kathie and Steve Markel and Pam and Bill Royall, co-chairs of the campaign committee. In recognition of each couple’s $5 million gift came naming honors: The center is named for the Markels, and the first floor Forum is named for the Royalls. The late Beverly Reynolds, a vanguard of Richmond’s contemporary art scene, is honored with her name on the ground floor gallery. In his remarks at the ICA’s opening, VCU President Michael Rao cited her as being the one who planted the initial seed that would blossom into the ICA.

For its inaugural show, the ICA has brought together 34 emerging and established artists from Richmond and the world beyond, whose work is deeply engaged with issues of social and political justice. Declaration is bold and varied with powerful work in a wide variety of media. “We wanted to be sure there’s space for different forms of beauty,” says Chief Curator Stephanie Smith. “The next show is going to feel quite different, and there will be another set of moods and experiences that viewers will encounter when they come back in the fall and again next spring and then again in the summer. …. However you feel about the work you encounter here on a given visit—either you love it, or you’re perplexed by it, or you don’t agree with the artist’s viewpoint, or whatever range of experiences you might bring to that encounter—your curiosity will be piqued and you’ll come back.” 

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