ICA Director Zoë Ryan on Museum Pandemic Pivots and Strengthening Community


Zoë Ryan, Institute of Contemporary Art Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director. Photo by Clare Britt.  

In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices and philosophies of many of Philadelphia’s cultural leaders to discuss how they and their organizations are addressing this moment’s unique challenges and their ambitions for enhancing the city’s cultural life in the future. 

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania, an internationally renowned venue for contemporary art and culture, appointed Zoë Ryan as its director in November 2020. The ICA has presented many Center-supported exhibitions, including Colored People Time (2019), Endless Shout (2017), and Barbara Kasten: Stages (2015). Ryan spoke to us about what brought her to Philadelphia, a pandemic-inspired shift in the organization’s programming philosophy, and the contemporary relevance of the ICA’s upcoming Ulysses Jenkins retrospective. 

Opening in September of 2021, Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation will spotlight the work of a pioneering video artist through his use of archival footage, photographs, music, sound, and performances, including the restaging of two of Jenkins’ major performance works, Bay Window (1991) and Talking Hut (1994). 

Sign up for our newsletter.

Zoe Ryan Q&A Block 1

You became director of the ICA in fall of 2020, coming from a position at the Art Institute of Chicago. What drew you to the ICA and to Philadelphia’s art scene? What do you think makes them distinctive?  

ICA has long championed diverse voices and projects that help audiences grapple with and make sense of the world. I've strived to incorporate a similar approach to my work. At the Art Institute of Chicago, where I worked for 14 years, I focused on developing projects and collections of modern and contemporary architecture and design that explored the social, cultural, and political implications of these fields and looked to position alternative narratives from across cultures, geographies, and disciplines as a way to rethink and expand the canon.  

My decision to take on the role of ICA’s Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director was influenced not only by my excitement to work with an organization that shares my values, but also a desire to reconnect with an organization that has had a formative influence on my career. In the early 2000s, when I worked in New York, I would regularly take the bus to see shows at ICA. Since then, I have continued to follow and admire its bold program.   

ICA is an incubator of ideas, a laboratory where experimentation and risk-taking are part of its DNA. We continue to reach beyond the canon while redefining what this is. The weight of taking on this role as director at such a pivotal moment in Philadelphia’s—and our country’s—history is not lost on me. I’m committed to building on ICA’s foundation in meaningful ways, centering equity and inclusion in our work, and aspire to not only break ground with the radical art that we are known for, but to also create lasting relationships within our community. 



Milford Graves, Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal, 2020, installation view, presented by Ars Nova Workshop, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Constance Mensh.


In January, the ICA concluded the Center-supported exhibition Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal (co-presented with Ars Nova Workshop). In response to pandemic operating restrictions, you hosted a virtual opening and created a digital exhibition tour and other programs, in addition to in-person visits when you were able to reopen. What did you learn about digital programming and audience engagement during this pivot?   

Support for our arts community and community as a whole, and the safety and well-being of our staff, were at the forefront of our processes in thinking about sustained engagement during this time. During the pandemic, we pivoted all of our public programming online and were intentional with our content, wanting to meet our audiences wherever they were/are and keep them engaged and inspired with programming that was centered on human connection and support. With online programming ranging from mindfulness meditation to panel discussions and performances, and the launch of our virtual exhibition tours, we learned to embrace the limitations of this moment but also learned a lot about how to reinvigorate our approach, which will inform our work going forward.  

The programming evolved to respond to the new conditions we were/are all living. Throughout, our staff and partners demonstrated an incredible level of resilience and flexibility.   

The title of Milford Graves’ exhibition—A Mind-Body Deal—felt particularly prescient, an indicator of what we all were attuned to—our mental and physical selves and well-being. It was an honor to be able to present ideas from his life’s work and emphasize the intense focus of his output and to celebrate Milford, who sadly passed away within a month of the exhibition’s closing. Graves was a wise and generous presence at nearly every program. We had people tuning in for these rare conversations from Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, and many other countries. It was quite something. That season ended on such a high note with a YouTube premiere of jazz musician Jason Moran performing inside the galleries. This performance and the virtual tour of Graves’s exhibition can be viewed on ICA’s website.   

Zoe Ryan Q&A Block 2

Zoe Ryan Q&A Block 3

Explore More