“I should make it clear that Claudia did not want this reception,” the Provost says. “But once she understood we were determined, she immediately started suggesting color palettes.”
We are at a goodbye reception in honor of ICA director Claudia Gould, who is stepping down after twelve years to become the director of The Jewish Museum in New York City. The Provost (ICA is part of the University of Pennsylvania) presents Claudia with a commemorative statuette of Ben Franklin—painted pink—and describes her many accomplishments. Then Anne Papageorge, who worked with Claudia on a committee to oversee public art on campus, says, “Claudia was good at cutting through the issues and saying what needed to be said.”
None of us who have worked for her would have doubted it for a second.
There have been a lot of lasts around ICA since Claudia (and The New York Times) announced her departure: last opening, last public program, last board meeting, last staff meeting. I think it was at the staff meeting that Claudia said something I have been turning over in my mind ever since. It was about the first opening she attended at ICA, just after she took the job, for a show of the artist Sol LeWitt. There were only ten or fifteen people there. “This is your opening?” Claudia asked a board member, who explained that only museum members were invited to the openings. Immediately Claudia started plotting change.
There has been a lot of change over these twelve years—so much, in fact, that for people like me who have only worked at ICA for a fraction of that time, it’s hard to imagine what things used to be like. Claudia not only invited the public in for openings, she tripled the exhibition schedule, tripled the staff, tripled the budget. She divided the upstairs gallery, creating a Project Space for smaller and more experimental exhibitions. She invited students to serve on a new student board, initiated an architecture and design series, helped launch two classes for undergraduates—one in collaboration with Art History, the other with English—and made museum admission free to the public. Just this summer, she forged a connection with the iconic Philadelphia coffee company La Colombe, which plans to open a café in ICA’s building later this year. She is also responsible for the Rudy Gernreich wallpaper in the bathrooms, a souvenir of the exhibition of the radical Austrian fashion designer which she brought to ICA in 2001.
I sat down with Claudia the other day in her sunny office with its green velvet divan and shelves full of books not just about art (I always noticeMarcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking when I come in). Claudia had just gotten back from a visit with Stefan Sagmeister (she’s organizing a show of Sagmeister’s work at ICA in April, coming back to Philadelphia to do it), and she told me that the visit reminded her “how great it is to work with artists. I got to know so many artists at ICA. Their expansive minds! It’s amazing that these things come out of people.” She mentioned artist Lisa Yuskavage, whose 2000 show was one of the first Claudia organized here. “Where does she get it?” Claudia marveled. “How deep does she have to go?”For me—for many of us at ICA—this is Claudia’s greatest quality: her genuine and passionate valuing of artists. ICA is a place where art and artists come first, where giving an exhibiting artist a fabulous experience is as important as (and inseparable from) organizing a fabulous show. I have never worked anywhere else where art genuinely came first.
Claudia talked about how important it was for staff—not just curators—to be out seeing art: “going to museums and galleries, and not just with vacation days.” She told me how happy she always is to write letters and make phone calls for interns and members of the student board to help them get jobs in the art world. I have often seen students in her office on the green divan. It’s obvious her conversations with them give her pleasure—no less than (though perhaps different in kind from) introducing a terrific new show, drinking tequila to celebrate an honoree at an ICA benefit, or exulting over a good review.
I asked Claudia what she would miss about Philadelphia. Before answering, she told me what she wouldn’t miss: “I want to say that I don’t like the taxi service in Philadelphia. I want that on the record.”
Luckily, the other list was longer: the Ritz movie theaters, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all the wacky, off-beat museums. The staff and the board here at ICA. The Rodney Graham wallpaper in the hallway and the Rudy Gernreich wallpaper in the bathrooms. Modern Eye, John at Avril, La Colombe coffee, Class 165 (“the most visionary class”). The Philomatheon Society. Virgil Marti’s pink chandelier in the lobby.
It won’t be the same at ICA without Claudia, in yet another gorgeous black dress, sailing out of the elevator, gold rings sparkling, black hair clipped back from her face. ICA and Claudia Gould have bled into each other so long and so deeply, it’s hard to say where one stops and the other begins. When I ask her what her hopes for ICA’s future are, she says, “I hope somebody comes on and takes everything further. More money, more staff, more press. More, more, more!”
Then she tells me what she said to someone who asked how she felt about leaving behind the world of contemporary art.
“I’m not leaving contemporary art,” she’d answered. “I’m adding to it. Leaving contemporary art would be like leaving my life.”
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