The Programs That Were: Grace Ambrose Reflects on Programming at ICA

Here at ICA we’ve just said goodbye to Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People. When I walked through the doors on January 2nd, there were already boxes being packed. A few weeks before, we gave the blue hammock that sat on the mezzanine to Paul, our chief preparator. This morning I sent the last box of books from Excursus III: Ooga Booga back to Wendy Yao. My first season of exhibitions as Spiegel Fellow is over.

In the programming department, we’ve been looking toward the next round of shows for a while. And soon after they open, on February 6, we will look ahead further still. Recently, we started thinking about what we might try to do in conjunction with Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, which opens next September.
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Program Curator Alex Klein and Spiegel Fellow Grace Ambrose. Photo: Patterson Beckwith

Robert, Dana, and Paul ably coordinate the objects you see in the galleries, which fly all over the country and the world and whose loans are carefully negotiated. I work with Program Curator Alex Klein to produce programs and exhibitions, including the Excursus series. We coordinate bodies, filling spaces with conversations and screenings and performances and readings and anything else that you can think of, getting interesting and interested people in a room together and seeing what happens. Though Jeremy Deller’s Valerie’s Snack Bar and I Heart Melancholy installations are gone, we programmers celebrate the Joy in People all year round. We depend on it. And people are difficult to pin down.

For one thing, schedules are complicated. We contend with the institution’s schedule, with the university’s, and with every individual’s own life. Though we’ve worked on them for months, next season’s programs are still coming together. It’s the nature of this kind of work. Fitting everything onto the calendar is like a series of turning cogs. When all is said and done, they’ll neatly lock together. It always works out, but waiting for the machinery to get up and running can be nerve wracking.

Behind every one of these public conversations is a series of many smaller, private ones. Unlike objects, people can talk back. As Spiegel Fellow I’m responsible for coordinating the logistics that go along with every program: making sure we have enough work studies and interns, booking airplanes and hotels, and processing C-Forms and W-9s. While we’re looking forward to the next season (we are always looking forward to the next season), we have to make sure of the current one first.

I help make the posters on our Risograph and set up the chairs in the auditorium. I drive around the city buying snacks from Trader Joe’s and special spices from the Pakistani market. I scour thrift stores for the perfect glass vessel for an artist’s performance and knickknacks to be transformed into coveted prizes. I pop popcorn. I brainstorm tweets. I order books and hammocks and lights and signs and flags and tarts and vegan, gluten-free, nut-free cookies. I help Alex stay on top of her correspondence with our guests and together we brainstorm each season of exhibitions with other curators, artists and grant writers. One weekend, I donned silk pants and a cape and joined in with performance collective My Barbarian.
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Plants from Excursus III: Ooga Booga in the programming office, along with the sculpture produced by Dean Allen Spunt’s November 7th performance on the mezzanine.

Every program has its own needs, its own set of spinning cogs, and that means this job is different every day. While I support Alex on all that she does, I’m responsible for organizing some programs on my own. All fall I have worked on March 12th’s multi-part presentation “With Tomorrow’s Sun.” There will be a talk by the curator of Glitter and Folds, our Jennifer Burris; a reading by Philadelphia’s famed and fabulous CAConrad; and a performance by Field Kallop, whose pendulum will swing diamond dust across the floor of the Project Space. For that evening, the pieces fell neatly into place – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to be done. There will be thank you notes to write and photos to color correct and honoraria to be paid. The life of a program is long, much longer than the ninety minutes or so that it lives in our building.

By the time you read this, the art in the galleries will be gone, making its way in its special boxes toward St. Louis. The walls will be coming down and new ones rising in their places. The programs, of course, disappeared weeks ago, into the chilly nights and crisp afternoons when they occurred. I look around my office though, and find objects have replaced them. The plants that populated the Ooga Booga installation on our mezzanine line the windowsill. Jeremy’s I Heart Melancholy print from Free For All hangs above my desk. A Polaroid of me from Patterson Beckwith’s Portable Portrait Studio is tacked to the bulletin board. A slip of paper, one of Wendy’s cats from the flat file drawers, is pinned above it. A prize I received from Club Nutz, a bobblehead of Phil & Phillis, precursors to the Phanatic, sits next to the computer monitor.
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From left: to-do lists, ICA’s Happy New Year card, a cat that lived in a flat file drawer, Polaroid portrait of the author by Patterson Beckwith

I’m excited for the coming season. I look forward to seeing the things that will arrive in our galleries over the next four weeks: the photographs and videos and sculptures and installations. I cannot wait to hang one of Sarah Crowner’s curtains across the mezzanine, as it is transformed by Primary Information for our final Excursus. But more even than that, I am looking forward to the objects that will end up on my desk once all those have disappeared: totems of the programs that were.

Grace Ambrose organizes people. In addition to supporting programming at the ICA as Spiegel Fellow, she is a co-coordinator of Ladyfest Philadelphia and the current Junior Fellow at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. On February 5th, join her at the Writers House for the launch of her project In Open Letters A Secret Appears: A People’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To stay up to date with what Grace and the rest of the ICA are staff are up to via the machinery of Miranda, email