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Mission

Miranda: Mission 1

Photo: J. Katz

ICA has a new mission statement. I admit that doesn’t sound amazingly exciting, but give me a minute, because it is. Our old mission statement was about what we did in a literal kind of way: make exhibitions, organize programs, document what we do in publications. This new one is more exhilarating:

The Institute of Contemporary Art believes in the power of art and artists to inform and inspire. The ICA is free for all to engage and connect with the art of our time.

Before I started working at ICA, it hadn’t occurred to me that a museum needed a mission statement. Our new one is part of ICA’s new strategic plan. It hadn’t occurred to me that a museum needed a strategic plan either.

But of course, a museum is a business. We have a bottom line and salaries to pay and decisions to make about what kind of art to exhibit and how to publicize our program. We’re not quite the same kind of business as, say, a gallery—we’re a non-profit, and we’re part of a university, so we’re not about making money—but obviously we need to transport art and insure it and display it and get our beautiful catalogues designed and buy tamales to feed you when you come to our Free For All. ICA is free for all—we don’t charge admission. What we care about is that you come to see the art we’re excited about, and that you get excited about it too. Also, we want the artists we work with to have a good experience here: to feel their work is valued, and if possible to give a boost to their careers.

But it’s hard to do those things if everybody’s operating on their own. It’s useful to have a guiding vision that helps you remember what’s important, and to agree upon a set of priorities and specific activities to help you achieve what you want to achieve. ICA spent two years developing its new strategic plan, a process that involved staff, board members, other museums, members of the public, as well as an arts consulting firm, LaPlaca Cohen, which at first I thought was a woman with an exotic first name.

One of the themes I find myself coming back to again and again in this blog is the intersection between art and money, or art and business. With some notable exceptions (Warhol with his Factory, Murakami with his in-gallery boutiques), artists don’t usually approach their work with anything resembling a businesslike mindset. That, in fact, is partly why they have galleries, so someone else can take care of that money stuff for them.

That’s why it’s so important for museums to remember that we are businesses. We owe it to the artists we present to be responsible and strategic, to meet deadlines, to behave professionally, to interrogate our methods and evaluate our progress. Some of the specifics in our strategic plan don’t make for exciting reading: “Tactic 1.1.2.2: Gauge and operate at different speeds with time for long-term projects to develop, while accommodating short-range opportunities when they arise.” I do like this one, though: “Integrate new media channels, such as blogs, into the media pitch mix”!

Sometimes working at an art museum is really fun, but other times it’s more or less like working anywhere else. On those days—long, paperwork-heavy afternoons studded with meetings and deadlines—it’s good to remember what the point of it all is:

The Institute of Contemporary Art believes in the power of art and artists to inform and inspire. The ICA is free for all to engage and connect with the art of our time.

Come by and visit and see if you get inspired. If you do, tell us about it in the comments. It’s always great when someone tells you you’re accomplishing your mission.