VCU’s new ICA director already planning RVA’s next step

What does Director Lisa Freiman have planned for VCU’s new multi-million dollar art institute?

Lisa Freiman

Lisa Freiman was antsy when she picked up the phone in June 2011. VCU had just announced that renowned architect Steven Holl would design the university’s Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at the corner of Belvidere and Broad. But the announcement contained another more implicit statement that excited Freiman: VCU would obviously need someone to serve as the ICA director.

“I called up someone who I worked with…and I said, ‘Hey, have you heard about this job?” Freiman said. That someone just so happened to working on PR materials for VCU on that very project. “I want that job,” Freiman told them. “I think that’s the job for me.” Two years later, she’d have it.

For nearly eleven years prior, Freiman worked at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) serving as the senior curator and chair of the contemporary art department, where she helped establish the museum’s global reputation.

But she began her career at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston after she graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in art history. “I knew I wanted to be a curator,” Freiman said.

She later earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in modern and contemporary art history at Emory University to broaden her curatorial abilities. “I wanted to be that curator that was exceptionally well-grounded in the history of art.” Per program requirements, she became a teacher while earning her Ph.D. “I loved teaching art history and contemporary [art] courses,” she said. But some in the art world believe teaching and curating are at odds. Freiman thinks that adversarial perspective is unnecessary. “I still believe there’s a very clear overlap between the practices,” she said. Despite her view, the industry largely dictated that she had to choose one profession over another. She choose to teach.

She went on the teaching market after completing her doctorate. “I was getting tenure-track teaching offers,” she said, the holy grail of teaching jobs. “I kept turning them down.” None of those teaching jobs excited her as much as curating.

Some time later, the IMA contacted her and invited her to Indianapolis to consider working there. Her role would give her the chance to not only curate, but to research and publish, just as she would as a tenured professor. “I felt like I had the opportunity and resources to be firing on both fronts at the same time,” she said. “It all felt right to me.”

Asked what she learned while at the IMA, Freiman doesn’t hesitate to say “everything.” The IMA took her on despite her never taking a museum studies course at any point during her education. “The greatest opportunity with the IMA was I got to go in with a huge amount of intellectual knowledge and a moderate amount of practical knowledge,” she said. She often tells people that her dissertation and grad work took eight years; the nearly 11 years she spent at the IMA was another degree itself.

“When I got to Indianapolis, it was a relatively unknown contemporary art museum,” Freiman said. Aside from cutting her teeth working at a “huge encyclopedic museum like the VMFA,” Freiman wanted to put the IMA “on the map nationally and internationally.”

In 2010, art connoisseurs located Indianapolis when the IMA opened 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. Not only is it one of the largest art parks in the country with sculptures designed to be climbed on and played with, “it was the only one in the US that focused on commissioned, site-responsive projects,” Freiman said. It became a model for other institutions who wanted to create similar art parks across the globe.

The following year, the IMA represented the US at the annual Venice Biennale, the oldest continuous contemporary art exhibition in the world. Freiman tapped Puerto Rican couple Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla to create six commissioned works for their “Gloria” exhibit. The IMA was only the second museum from the Mid-West to represent the US at Venice Biennale. International eyes fixed on Indianapolis once again.

Around that time, Freiman contemplated advancing to a director position. “I knew in my heart that I needed to challenge myself in a different way,” she said. Other museums approached her with offers, but none of them really enticed her. “I wanted to really make sure I said ‘yes’ to the one that really made sense to me.”

In June 2011, VCU announced it would build the ICA, piquing Freiman’s attention. “How many get the opportunity to build a museum from the ground up?”

VCU officials eventually contacted Freiman and began a lenghty interview process. In between interviews, Freiman was independently selected by VCU Arts for another position: to jury and curate the 2013 spring undergraduate exhibition. That gave her the chance to visit Richmond and VCU while she was considered to serve as director of the ICA. “I loved it,” Freiman said about visiting the city. “It just felt right.”

It’s now been over two months since Freiman was named the ICA’s inaugural director, where she hopes to create a “vibrant institution.”

“I think it’s really exciting to try and figure out how the ICA can be a ground zero for creativity and emerging practices,” she said. In the first weeks of her directorship, Freiman has spoken with representatives of other creative outfits in the city: Richmond Ballet, VMFA, and others. “I’m trying to understand different parts of the community…for collaboration and synergy,” she said.

Not only is the ICA bolstered by its affiliation with the national reputation of VCU Arts, but its location in an already artistic city. “There is a really diverse and creative class here that’s contributing to the innovation of the city,” Freiman said. “I want to capitalize on that.”

The ICA will contribute to the city’s creativity well before the ICA opens in 2015. This Friday, the future site of the ICA at Belvidere and Broad will host a scaled down version of Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher’s four-channel video “Synaptic Bliss” for the FALL LINE FEST. Four 70-inch LED screens will display the audiovisual exhibit that explores digital consciousness. “It’s a really beautiful abstract video,” Freiman said. In front of the four screens will be an AstroTurf viewing area along with food trucks to symbolize the ICA’s role in fostering discussion and community engagement.1

The upcoming exhibit is just a teaser of what Freiman wants to do with the ICA in the future. “I’m thinking a lot about how we can bring in artists that can engage with the community in different ways,” she said. The ICA will not only showcase new and cutting-edge art, Freiman said, it will also update its exhibits continually. “It really allows us to be the site of experimentation.”

Freiman hopes that the ICA will not only stand on its own as a creative force in the art world, but will also symbolize Richmond’s own creative evolution. “This is just the next step in the story of Richmond itself,” she said.

The ICA is still accepting donations to its capital campaign to fund construction. Over $23 million has been raised for the estimated $35 million project.

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Footnotes

  1. Aziz and Cucher will appear at the Grace Street Theater on Friday at 4:00 PM to give a free artist talk. 

photo courtesy of VCU

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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