Why Institutions Now?

By Alex Klein and Tausif Noor
Written for Alserkal Online.

Rare is the insight that arrives without serious self-reflection. In the world of art museums, milestone anniversaries are often occasion for critical evaluation of the institution’s mission and future endeavors. In 2013, the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (ICA) in Philadelphia celebrated its 50th anniversary with a six-month long exhibition that drew inspiration from its past as a springboard for a slew of newly commissioned works, programs, screenings, performances, and installations that underscored the institution’s commitment to artists in the present.

Yet, after the exhibition, a few burning questions remained. What, exactly, did the “institute” in the ICA’s name signify across its history and how could it be reimagined going forward? How did it set itself apart from other non-collecting contemporary arts organisation or similarly-scaled kunsthalles? Our investigation began with an earnest look into the ICA’s archives: we pored over previous mission statements and searched databases in the University of Pennsylvania archives. Very quickly, we recognized the need to expand our questions and look outward beyond our own walls. What potentials might an “institute,” focused on contemporary art within the context of a major research university and open to the public, hold today? What was the function and the future of the institution? Who plays a role in shaping it?

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