The phrase “I is for Institute” is at once a declaration, a prompt, and a position. When ICA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, we considered our next chapter by digging deep into our archives and reflecting on the many individual artists, curators, and exhibitions that had shaped our history. Taking a step back from these granular investigations, we then began to ask more general questions: Why were we initially formed as an institute? Has the definition of an institute been stable throughout our history, or has it taken on different meanings and inflections over time? What does the notion of an “institute” conjure for a public? How might we question the parameters of an “institute of contemporary art” as a way to rethink how we approach our own institutional identity? Through an interrogation of the “institute” in ICA’s name we sought to better understand how we currently frame ourselves through language and also hoped it would lead us to consider conceptual alternatives that we have yet to imagine.
Above all, the “I” in I is for Institute acknowledges that institutions are composed of people and rooted in places. We are often asked if the different ICAs around the world are affiliated—they are not. Although the names might be similar, all of the institutes of and for contemporary art have their own distinct qualities and missions. Some ICAs have collections and some declare themselves kunsthalles; some are attached to universities or are modest independent spaces, while others are larger-scale private museums. The shifts between these institutional frameworks are also evident in different approaches to how contemporary art is communicated, exhibited, researched, and represented. And while there are certainly structural and programmatic differences between the many organizations devoted to contemporary art, there are also alliances, resonances, and synergies.
What initially began as a self-reflexive project soon turned to face outward. With our desire to think critically about the trajectory of our own contemporary art institution, within its specific moment and locale, we also felt the need to situate ourselves by considering how we relate to and differ from other organizational models. We recognized that I is for Institute is necessarily a collaborative project, one that can only be realized with the participation of our peers—the people who form our personal, social, and professional networks and the many individuals who shape institutions. We began by having conversations with our colleagues and asking them the same questions we asked ourselves. In these discussions we have tried to highlight the vision and labor that goes into running institutions—too often overlooked or unrecognized—as well as how they are informed by organizational structures and institutional histories. As we began our dialogues with colleagues from around the world we found that people were generous with their time and eager to discuss their work in institutions (and anti-institutions) of various scales. They spoke candidly about the challenges they have faced, the accomplishments they have achieved, and their hopes for both their respective organizations and the field going forward. Over long-distance phone calls, Skype chats, frequent emails, and in-person meetings, directors and curators offered invaluable perspectives on what it means to work in, build, and re-envision contemporary arts organizations today.