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

ICA Director Zoë Ryan on Museum Pandemic Pivots and Strengthening Community

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). 

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.
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.   

Tell us about your forthcoming retrospective of artist Ulysses Jenkins, which received a Center grant in 2020. How has the pandemic affected the development of the project? What lessons from the last year might influence its design and presentation?   

We’re thrilled to be co-organizing this retrospective of pioneering video/performance artist Ulysses Jenkins with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it will travel after its premier this fall at ICA. Both institutions are now open again at limited capacity, the Hammer only recently, and it feels like our planning is gaining momentum. While unable to meet in person, ICA curator Meg Onli and Erin Christovale of the Hammer, with Jenkins, have been meeting virtually over this past year (a culmination of deep research and digitization of Jenkins’s extensive archive over the past three years).  

This show is an extension of ICA’s long history of presenting performance and video work. Jenkins’ work—now being revisited by scholars, curators, and other artists—exudes a sense of joy, while dealing with critical social and cultural issues. In that spirit, the fall season will kick off with a virtual celebration that coincides with the artist’s 75th birthday. 

The political and social commentary present in the work—such as interrogations of Black stereotypes in the American entertainment industry, calls to protect the rights of indigenous groups, and environmental devastation amplified by unchecked capitalism—also makes it particularly relevant in today’s context. Community partnerships will be essential in creating timely discussions around these ideas that are central to the work. 

This is an opportunity to present Jenkins’ work in a new context, to a broad international audience, including a younger generation of video artists and enthusiasts still influenced by his work from 40 years ago. 

Technology’s role in building community is a primary concern across Jenkins’s work, a concept that resonates today. Just as he innovatively used nascent technology to address pressing issues of his day, the exhibition will utilize current and varied technology to capture the artist’s original intent to increase access to shared experiences and provide a platform for marginalized voices.  

With over 30 time-based works in the exhibition, along with Jenkins’s extensive video archive, we’re exploring multiple streaming platforms around which to build community, learning from public access television and social media, as well as looking to how film festivals have adapted their program online to inform our own program of events. It is an exciting opportunity for ICA to support the legacy of an important artist. 

Ulysses Jenkins, Two Zone Transfer, 1979. Still of video transferred to DVD, color, sound, 23:52 min. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ulysses Jenkins, Two Zone Transfer, 1979. Still of video transferred to DVD, color, sound, 23:52 min. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What do you believe are the necessary questions cultural institutions must be asking themselves now with respect to their commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion? What actions should they be taking?   

The last year has been one of struggle and trauma. At ICA, we are thinking critically about our role, responsibilities, and resources.

At the heart of ICA’s mission and building on the foundations of who we are, established almost 60 years ago, is our commitment to championing and advocating for diverse voices, ideas, and narratives that resonate today.

As a public institution, it is crucial that we center our equity work and hold ourselves accountable. There is much work to be done. With my arrival and informed by input from across the Penn landscape and from colleagues at arts institutions nationwide, we created IDEA @ ICA, an initiative led by ICA staff across the organization that looks at our DEAI work in a holistic way. Not wanting to limit how we understand concerns related to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) and understanding these as intersectional concerns, we are working first internally on trainings and workshops focused on anti-racism, as well as organizational culture and staff development to ensure that we use this as a lens through which we understand and develop everything we do, so that we can create a just and anti-racist institution and contribute to larger societal conversations.  

What are you seeing as the biggest lessons from the pandemic that have the potential to create opportunities for growth, change, and greater resilience in the museum sector?   

The hardships of the past year have underscored the potential for institutions like ICA to further their role as spaces that bring people together and encourage an exchange of ideas that amplifies underrecognized voices and alternative narratives and outlooks that help frame and reframe understandings of the world. We want to further our potential as a resource and better support our local communities, including in West Philadelphia, a community that has been heavily affected by the pandemic. We recognize that developing meaningful relationships and partnerships in our very own backyard and nurturing these is critical to ensuring we are welcoming and supporting our neighbors and learning from them, so we can provide meaningful programs that are engaging, accessible, and innovative. 

Thinking about your organization’s post-pandemic future, what are you most optimistic about?  

Most immediately, I look forward to in-person conversations with our staff and members of faculty and seeing students and our neighbors in the galleries—essentially reconnecting with our community again in meaningful ways.  

No longer only thinking in terms of our physical location first, the potential to expand ICA’s role in building community—as a place where people can connect with one another, both online and off, and make connections with art and artists in both real life and in the digital space—is only going to continue to play an increasingly critical role in our lives. It’s about creating partnerships and projects and a context for our work that meets people where they are, encouraging rich and meaningful dialogue and in doing so, creating even greater access and support for one another.