On a sunny morning in early May, the ICA’s Student Advisory Board is munching on croissants and chocolate babka and sipping cups of La Colombe coffee. They need the coffee. It is finals season at Penn and they are swamped with papers and projects and exams. They’ve torn themselves away from the library so we can congregate around the conference room table one final time. Today we will say goodbye to our graduating seniors and welcome a new batch of freshmen to our ranks.
We’re lucky at ICA to have a group of talented and curious Penn undergraduates who volunteer their time to help us figure out the best ways to engage with the student body. Once a month they file into our conference room-cum-library, where they tackle all sorts of issues from grant writing to program imagining. They attend Board of Trustees meetings, brainstorm marketing strategies, and help plan and execute public programs. They are our women (and men) on the street, the best ambassadors we have to the University that sprawls outside our front door. They are artists and art history majors, but also future real estate moguls and urban studies students and creative writers. They are indispensable.
Today the students are reflecting on their favorite moments of their board tenures. Justin and Isaac recall interviewing associate curator Anthony Elms about his exhibition White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart as the highlight of their first year on the board. The pair prepared questions and led a conversation at an event for some of our high-level donors. Anthony is always fun to talk to, and this time was no exception, but what they remember most is that all three wore gingham shirts that day. Matching bespectacled men sitting behind a table – pretty prescient for a discussion of a show about fashion.
Ellie remembers watching ICA’s contribution to the worldwide Day With(out) Art movement grow exponentially. She brought the event to ICA’s Excursus space as a junior, playing host to an afternoon of fellowship, discussion, and button making over bagels and cream cheese. This year the event expanded tenfold and included a visit from the artist collective Fierce Pussy and a screening of the ACT UP documentary United in Anger at International House. Ellie is graduating, and she tells the freshman that they too can take an idea from imagination to reality. It’s one of the special things about ICA, a place where, when students want to meet with the director or bounce ideas off the Senior Curator, all they have to do is ask.
David remembers coming to see a program with Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch as a freshman. The artists, who were included in the exhibition Queer Voice, were in conversation with Student Board members and it was then that he decided he wanted to join the board, so he too could have access to artists he liked. He got a chance this year, when the board invited Trevor Paglen to our annual Free For All event in March.
At Free For All, Paglen discussed his project The Last Pictures, for which he chose 100 photographs—of the construction of the atomic bomb, smiling prisoners in an internment camp, the Hoover Dam, Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, the surface of the moon—and had them etched them onto a silicon disk which was attached to a communications satellite and sent into space, where it will orbit Earth forever. Made up of mathematical tables and animations of spacecraft in orbit, Paglen’s presentation was equal parts Astronomy 101 lecture, artist talk, and philosophy seminar. In many ways, it was representative of where we sit at Penn. The ICA is a home for artists and art lovers, but we’re tucked into a larger community of knowledge seekers and question askers, all searching for different ways to look at and learn about the world around us. We’re a home for all of them too.
The students seated around our table – the students responsible for bringing this and many other remarkable artists here to ICA – all have different degrees of interest in the art world. Some are throwing themselves in headfirst: one graduating senior will work at an auction house, two others will pursue graduate work, in art history and fine arts. Others will take different paths: interning with a District Attorney or spending the summer at an investment bank. They hail from London, Toronto, Kansas, New York, and Philadelphia, among other places. Many have cultivated a lifelong love of contemporary art, passed down from their parents and grandparents, while others discovered this world for themselves, when they arrived at Penn, through the ICA.
I was one of those that fell in love with contemporary art at ICA. During my freshman year, I enrolled in a seminar taught by ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner. Six years later, I am still here, now as the Spiegel Fellow, following stints as intern and Student Board member and freelancer. I remember afternoons spent with artist Matthew Buckingham, who came to our Laundry Boat celebration, and nights on the ICA terrace, celebrating one opening or another with my cohorts. As an undergraduate, I sat around the conference table through countless meetings – discussions of which artist to invite or which tasty snack to have at an event. The latter was inevitably more heated.
Today, welcoming the new members, I am glad to be on the other side of the table. I look forward to helping them harness their ideas and make them reality. We can’t wait to see what they will do.
Grace Ambrose organizes people. In addition to supporting programming at the ICA as Spiegel Fellow, she was a co-coordinator of Ladyfest Philadelphia and the Junior Fellow at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is currently editing the project In Open Letters A Secret Appears: A People’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.