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A Boston art museum comes of age

City's showcase for modern works plans to triple its viewing space with a snazzy new waterfront building.

November 29, 2003|Steve LeBlanc | Associated Press

BOSTON — If all goes as planned, sometime next spring this city that nicknamed itself the "Hub" of all things cultural will break ground on its first new art museum in a century.

The Institute of Contemporary Art -- long a funky outpost in Boston's small, staid constellation of art museums -- is scheduled to throw open the doors of a sparkling new, four-story museum on the city's waterfront in 2006, heralding what it hopes will be a new era of support for cutting-edge art.

The 62,000-square-foot building is designed to triple the space of the museum's current lodgings. It will include a 300-seat theater, whose glass walls can be adjusted for light to meet particular performance needs (from opaque to translucent to transparent, revealing harbor views); an open grandstand facing the water; and an 18,000-square-foot gallery, clad in glass planks and illuminated at night, that cantilevers out over a public walkway along the waterfront.

The building will also allow the museum for the first time to create a permanent collection, something it had been prevented from doing because of lack of space.

The last time Boston had an art museum opening to celebrate like this was when the Museum of Fine Arts moved from Copley Square into its current location in the city's Fenway neighborhood in 1909.

The new structure is also a kind of coming-out party for the ICA, which spent its first 40 years hopscotching around downtown Boston before landing a permanent home in the quirky confines of a former police station in the city's Back Bay neighborhood.

During its life, the museum, established in 1936, has welcomed artists from around Boston and the world dedicated to pushing the limits of the arts, politics and culture. It was among the earliest to showcase artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Egon Schiele and Thomas Struth.

"Our strength and proven track record is being able to expose artists before they really enter the canon," ICA Director Jill Medvedow says. "The ICA has earned its place in the city and needs a building as bold and beautiful as the work it has done for the past 70 years."

The building is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife design team of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. Fittingly, the team has created a number of public artworks and permanent installations intended to link architectural design with performance and electronic media.

One of the team's most ambitious projects was the Blur Building created for the Swiss Expo 2002. Built on a lake in Switzerland, the steel structure was enveloped in a mist created by filtered lake water shot through 31,000 fog nozzles.

The new museum is part of the city's ongoing redevelopment of its South Boston harbor front. The ICA won a competition intended to dedicate a portion of the development to a cultural institution.

In September, the ICA signed a 99-year lease for the three-quarter-acre site with the Hyatt Development Corp., which is owned by the Chicago-based Pritzker family. The $1-per-year lease will allow the museum to focus its fund-raising efforts on construction costs.

The ICA is hoping to raise about $60 million for the project, including $41 million for construction, with the rest going to an endowment and moving costs. About $8 million will come from the sale or lease of the current building.

The museum will be the cultural linchpin of the 2.9-million-square-foot Fan Pier waterfront development project, which is also planned to include 675 residential units, a hotel and more than 100,000 square feet of civic and cultural space and parks.

"The city absolutely needs this. It's really critical to the ecology of the cultural life of the city," says Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, celebrating its centennial this year.

Hawley says the new ICA will complement rather than compete with the city's older art museums.

"Not having the ICA in a strategic position has been a huge lack," she says. "Without a strong contemporary art center that is pivotally located and collecting, you miss a whole part of the art world."

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