Susan, an intern in the curatorial department, tells us how she ordered the books for The Uses of Literacy, one of the installations in ICA’s current exhibition, Jeremy Deller: Joy in People. She says she was surprised to learn “how much work goes into the tiniest details…the different arrangement of the books on the shelf. The colors and how they looked against the wall—whether the orange should be in the middle and the green should be on the side.”
It’s a sunny lunchtime on the mezzanine, and Amy Sadao, ICA’s new director as of September, is having lunch with ICA’s other newcomers: this fall’s crop of interns and work study students. Some are Penn students, others have graduated recently from other universities, and a few have even curated their own shows. Over turkey or avocado-and-cheese sandwiches, Amy asks them to go around the table and share what they found most surprising when they started working here.
Ian, a Penn senior, says, “I think it’s really interesting that not everyone at ICA has a PhD in art history.”
Joanna, who wants to go into conservation, says she’s amazed by how much the museum changes from show to show: “It’s not just a passive space for art,” she says.
Lindsay, who works in the development department, says, “How much work goes into making it free for everyone!”
“I’ve been an intern,” Amy says. “That’s how I learned a lot about art institutions.” She sketches her background, how she went to Cooper Union for her BFA—“but I knew halfway through that I wasn’t going to be an artist.” Later she attended a PhD program at Berkeley in Ethnic Studies. For ten years, before beginning this job, Amy was Executive Director of Visual AIDS in New York City, an ambitious institution with a small staff that relies on interns and volunteers perhaps even more than ICA does.
When it’s her turn to say what surprised her most about being here, Amy tells the interns, “I thought ICA’s staff of eighteen would be a lot! But now I see that eighteen: it’s really not that many people for the great ambitions and scale of what ICA does. So it’s really great to have you here!”
Eva, who is getting her masters at Tyler, says she’s surprised by how much research goes into marketing strategies for each individual show.
Egina, who has already done some independent curating, says, “What really surprises me is how democratic the space is upstairs [in the offices]. That wouldn’t necessarily happen at another museum.”
Tammy says, “How much paperwork there is.”
After the circle is completed, the conversation turns to other things. Amy talks about her own various internships, offers advice, and muses about art: “I like the idea that, if you are going to work with contemporary art, you might be interested in the unknown. Because that’s what artists are interested in.”
Getting a new director is itself an exercise in the unknown. It’s like moving into a house in early spring before anything has come up in the garden: every day reveals something new. So far the garden that is Amy Sadao is fast-growing, full of bright vines and flourishing berry bushes, bees buzzing everywhere. There has been lots of activity here this fall: new ideas and people, an energetic openness to connections in all corners of the art world, the University, the city, the region. Amy spent her first week at ICA meeting with every staff member, and her interest in all aspects of museum functioning is unmistakable. It was her idea to have this lunch, to make sure the interns knew that she appreciated their work, and to hear what they might have to tell her. “Your perceptions are valuable to the institution, and to me,” she says.
As lunch comes to an end, Anthony, ICA’s Associate Curator, comes up the steps, laden with grocery bags. He’s getting ready to make dinner for participants in tomorrow’s ICA Salon.
“Anthony!” Amy says. “What surprised you most when you first came to ICA?”
“That everybody cooks,” Anthony says.
To stay abreast of what surprises Miranda, email firstname.lastname@example.org.