When I come downstairs mid-afternoon, the second floor hums with men and women dressed in black being briefed on how to serve the late harvest Indian panzanella salad. Also the braised short ribs with burgundy demi-glace, the apple confection, and the assorted truffles. The gallery has been carpeted and filled with long tables and a podium. At ICA we are accustomed to quick transformations: just last week this room was divided into five chambers hung with Brian Weil’s photographs; before that it was cut in two and sported pink shag rugs and long-haired male mannequins for the Jeremy Deller show. Still, the conversion from gallery to high-end feast hall takes my breath away. This morning we had our staff meeting in here among bare, stacked rental tables and shrouded chairs; now, with gold cloths discreetly glittering and orange roses blooming in long rows, it’s a stage set for a banquet from a dream.
The banquet being prepared is for ICA’s major fundraiser, our annual benefit—but this year with a special twist. The museum turns fifty in 2013, and to mark the occasion we are honoring Leonard Lauder: emeritus chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies, Inc., emeritus chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, emeritus trustee of Penn, tenacious art collector, exuberant philanthropist. Just this morning (this morning!) Mr. Lauder was on the front page of The New York Times for donating his unparalleled collection of Cubist art to the Metropolitan Museum. In a few short hours the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, will be sampling the short ribs in the company of the directors of the Whitney, MoMA, the Barnes Collection, the deputy director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and former ICA director Claudia Gould. Claudia, who now leads New York’s Jewish Museum, helped inaugurate the venture this evening celebrates, ICA’s Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellows (WLCF) program, which brings fabulous young curators to us for a year or two, enriching our museum beyond measure.
Now ICA’s director, Amy Sadao, is welcoming the guests as the late harvest panzanella salad is expertly served. Now the short ribs, accompanied by a video: a lively, charming piece that chronicles the WLCF program and its ten fellows to date.
This impressive array of curators has fanned out from Philadelphia over the past decade, bringing their talents and skills to museums, galleries, festivals, and universities all over the world. Back in January, I watched the videographers, Matt Suib and Aaron Igler of Greenhouse Media (good friends of ICA who also document our exhibitions), tape their interview with Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner. First Aaron transformed Ingrid’s office into a stage set, plugging in lights, microphones, and a big contraption called a “soft box” for creating an even glow. It was crowded. “Can we get about ten more people in here?” Ingrid suggested. “How about some flying squirrels?”
Matt told jokes to put Ingrid at ease. “We’re interviewing fourteen people for a seven-minute video,” he reminded her. “Whatever you say will be boiled down to probably thirty seconds.”
And now, tonight, here’s the finished piece projected high up on the wall! Interviews with the fellows themselves interweave with gorgeous images of their ICA shows. Kathy Sachs, ICA’s former board chair and chair of tonight’s event, tells the camera, “I first met Leonard Lauder when the [Penn] Trustees came to ICA, and I was very lucky in that I ended up sitting right next to Leonard. He just turned to me and he said, ‘What’s happening at ICA?’ ”
A little later, when Mr. Lauder himself gets up to speak, he smiles at Kathy: “I pay attention to my dinner partners—especially if they’re young and gorgeous!” Then he says, “ICA is the crown jewel not just of Penn, but of the country.”
Seeing the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellows gathered in this room and hearing the program’s origin story is disorienting in the best possible way—like sitting in this room twice in one day and having it seem like two different rooms. So often in life we are presented with something—a successful program, an exhibition, a fancy dinner—and the mind takes it for granted, sliding over it as over glass, no friction. Learning how things are made, and what was there before, makes the experience richer.
Behind every successful curator lies the first chance to organize a show. Behind every successful program lies the first spark of an idea.
Everyone here tonight has this in common: behind whatever they are—curator, collector, museum director, artist, or museum intern—lies the first encounter with a work of art that lit their heart and mind on fire. We hope that, from time to time, that fire is ignited here at ICA.
To stay up to date with all ICA’s sparks and anniversaries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.