what are the leadership issues on this case?

10-104
Rev: November 9, 2010
This case was prepared by Cate Reavis, Manager, MIT Sloan Teaching Innovation Resources (MSTIR).
Copyright © 2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-
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Turnaround and Transformation: Leadership and Risk at
Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art
Cate Reavis
On February 9, 2009, Shepard Fairey, a renowned street artist known for his iconic red, white and
blue, “hope”, “change”, and “progress” posters of Barack Obama that were used in the president’s
election campaign, was on his way to an opening night party for his “Supply and Demand” exhibition
at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art when he was arrested on an outstanding warrant outside the
front door. Fairey had failed to appear in court three days earlier on a vandalism charge dating back to
2000.
While the arrest interrupted the opening night’s festivities—and was a definite downer for the nearly
800 people who were awaiting Fairey’s arrival, some of whom had purchased tickets on Craig’s List
for $5001—it did nothing to dampen public enthusiasm for Fairey’s exhibit. Between February and
the exhibition’s closing in August, 130,000 people attended the show.
In some sense, the Fairey incident was great PR for the ICA, an institution that had gone through an
enormous transformation under its Director, Jill Medvedow. When Medvedow arrived in 1998, the
ICA had no money, few members, no permanent collection, and, on a good year, clocked 25,000
visitors. Operating out of an old police station on Boylston Street, it was hardly a must-see cultural
destination in Boston. It was considered less a museum and more an “insider’s art club”.2
By the time of Fairey’s exhibition, the ICA was, quite literally, in a very different place. In 2006 the
museum celebrated the grand opening of its new $51 million building, located on highly coveted
1 Milton Valencia, “Street Artist Arrested on Way to Event at ICA,” The Boston Globe, February 7, 2009.
2 Geoff Edgers, “Big Draw,” The Boston Globe, July 19, 2009.
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waterfront property in South Boston where, over the years, several high-end commercial developers
had failed in their building attempts.
Medvedow’s ability to bring change to an organization that had no power, involved being disciplined,
getting people to believe in an idea, and taking many, many risks.
Contemporary Art in Boston
Up until the late 1920s, modern art in Boston, and throughout the United States, struggled to be taken
seriously. In 1911 the director of Harvard University’s Fogg museum summed up the general feeling
about contemporary art at the time: “In having exhibitions of the work of living men we may subject
ourselves to various embarrassments.” By the late 1920s, a group of Harvard undergraduates set out
to challenge this viewpoint by forming the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art as a place where the
work of living men could be viewed.3 In 1936 the Society became the Boston Museum of Modern Art
and in 1948 the museum changed its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. For more than 50
years, the ICA was the only place in Boston dedicated to contemporary art.
Unlike other styles of art, contemporary art, which included visual exhibitions, music, film, video and
performance created by living artists, had never caught on in Boston like it had in other cities, most
notably New York and San Francisco. According to Medvedow, there were a number of theories
behind this:
When you look at the ecology of what makes a vibrant contemporary art scene, you need to have
several different components that all interact with one another. There need to be art schools and a
strong artist community where work is created and ideas are exchanged. You need collectors,
galleries and institutions that acquire, present, sell, and display that work. Historically, Boston
lacked many of these components, never sustaining a critical mass of contemporary art activity
and, as a result, these gaps prevented the growth of a healthy contemporary art environment in
Boston.
Added to the ecology argument was the fact that there had been little private and public sector
investment in the arts in Boston, particularly contemporary. Municipal spending for the arts in Boston
was far less than what was spent in four dozen other cities in the United States and, on a broader
scale, Massachusetts ranked 50th among the states for per capita philanthropy.4 As Medvedow
remarked, “A lot of Boston’s wealth was built on conserving it and less on creating it.” And then
there was the New York factor. As Medvedow noted, “New York’s artistic energy, support, scale and
audience for the arts of all disciplines, has always been a magnet for Boston’s artist community.”
3 Christine Temin, “The ICA at 60: Where does the museum fit in?” The Boston Globe, May 5, 1996.
4 Maureen Dezell, “ICA Faces Fund-raising Challenge,” The Boston Globe, March 10 2000.
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There were members of Boston’s art world that felt the absence of a strong contemporary art
community was a big drawback for Boston. As William Rawn, a Boston architect and long time ICA
board member, explained, “Artists provide a very different way of looking at the world. They ask
questions that are different from the norm and in Boston, a city that honors academics and inventors,
this is particularly admired.” Furthermore, through their work, contemporary artists reflected what
was currently happening in society and as Vin Cipolla, who served on the ICA board for 16 years and
as its chairman from 1997-2005, noted: “It’s the role of an institution like the ICA to provide a safe
place where a diversity of perspectives can be expressed to a wide audience.”
This was something Medvedow believed at her core.
Jill Medvedow
Described as “pathologically optimistic,” Jill Medvedow’s commitment to civic causes began when
she was young. Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by parents who were political and social activists,
Medvedow admitted that campaigning was something she was exposed to in utero. “My parents
taught me how to be a good citizen,” she said. “My mother was deeply engaged in volunteering for
civic and charitable causes and my father was a prominent elected official. I grew up thinking I was
part of the city’s political fabric.”5 Through her upbringing, she “learned about the basic mechanics of
organizing and how to move an agenda,”6 skill sets that would serve her well in her professional life.
Trained as an art historian, Medvedow arrived in Boston in 1986 from Seattle where she had founded
a nonprofit contemporary arts center. In 1991 she became the first full-time contemporary curator at
the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, bringing in numerous performing and visual artists from
around the world. When she left the Gardner in 1996, Medvedow was determined that her next career
move would involve bringing art to a broader public. “I was trying to figure out how to build a bridge
between contemporary art and an audience that didn’t have a great affection for it,” she explained. “I
came up with the idea of framing public art projects through the history and landscape of Boston,
which Bostonians typically have a lot of affection for.” Within a year, she founded Vita Brevis, an
organization devoted to producing temporary public art pieces. With the first Vita Brevis project near
completion, Medvedow found herself being courted to become the ICA’s next director.
According to Rawn, who headed the search committee for the ICA’s new director, it was
Medvedow’s character as much as her curatorial background that made her such an attractive
candidate:
The minute you met Jill you immediately noticed that she is centered. She is not wowed by
trends. In language, in dress, she is not the least bit pretentious. She doesn’t try to be someone or
something she isn’t. She is not out to prove anything to anybody. She has a strong intellectual
5 Christine Temin, “Jill Medvedow’s Dreamscape…” The Boston Globe, July 15, 2001.
6 Rachel Strutt, “The Visionary Jill Medvedow…” The Boston Globe, December 31, 2006.
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base for her opinions on art. This part of her persona was reflected in her vision for the ICA,
which was something that really struck us. She was passionate that the ICA needed to be relevant,
very public and non-elitist, and that in order for it to succeed, it had to be better at outreach
whether it was with school children, local politicians, donors, or members.
A further selling point for the search committee was that because Medvedow was an outsider in the
world of museum directors, she didn’t come with old rivalries or attachments.
Striving to be Marginal
When Medvedow took the reigns in March 1998, the ICA, with a yearly attendance of 25,000 (an
average of 68 people a day) and a paltry budget just shy of $1 million, was in the midst of a severe
identity crisis. The museum was housed in a converted police station and stable on Boylston Street, a
building it had purchased from the city of Boston in the early 1990s with $328,000 in donations from
trustees and overseers.7 (The Boylston address was the 10th location the museum had had since its
founding.) The quirky space was largely defined by an enormous staircase that cut down through the
center of the building’s four floors, creating enormous space contraints for exhibits. Unlike other
Boston-area museums which could hang more than 10 shows a year,8 the ICA was limited to just
four, with months of down time in between shows. Partly because of space and largely because of
money and lack of interest, the ICA had no permanent collection, an important symbol of status in the
museum world, which also helped art institutions create an identity, draw repeat visitors, and build a
donor base. Meanwhile, contemporary art could be viewed at a number of museums throughout
Boston, many of which were backed by well-endowed academic institutions including MIT’s List
Visual Arts Center, the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis), Massachusetts College of Art, the Museum of
Fine Arts, and Harvard University Art Museums. As Medvedow liked to say at the time, “The ICA
was striving to be marginal.”
Medvedow’s mandate was to stabilize and reinvent. As Cipolla explained,
The ICA was doing some great work but it didn’t really have a point of view. The programming
was spotty, the outreach was not very strategic, and the building we were in was a physical
manifestation of the inadequacy of the organization. The ICA needed to be a place that, by the
nature of its work and outreach, touched multiple facets of the Boston community. In order to
become this, we needed somebody driven, entrepreneurial, who would be forceful about change.
One of the things that set Jill apart from the other candidates wasn’t that she had spent a lifetime
in contemporary art but rather than she understood how to work with audiences. She had the
passion to bring content and interactive thinking and approaches to people of all ages across a
spectrum of interests, getting the ICA outside of an elite and narrow comfort zone. She wasn’t
7 Christine Temin, “The ICA at 60: Where does the museum fit in?” The Boston Globe, May 5, 1996.
8 Ibid.
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willing to accept that what the ICA had to offer, or what contemporary artists had to say, was not
important for all kinds of people.
As part of her hiring agreement, Medvedow was allowed to bring Vita Brevis with her and fold it into
the ICA’s programming, a move that proved critical over the following years as the ICA strove to
reposition itself. As one journalist noted at the time, “Since the ICA has so much trouble pulling
people in, putting art where people will virtually have to trip over it may be a smart move.”9
Early Days
Shortly after her arrival, Medvedow put together a “business planning group” comprised of three
board members and three outsiders including Sheryl Marshall, who, as a top stockbroker, was a
known business leader in Boston; Nick Littlefield, a lawyer who had served as Senator Edward
Kennedy’s Chief of Staff for 10 years; and, Mary Schneider Enriquez, an art historian and critic who
had recently moved to Boston from Mexico City. (Marshall and Schneider Enriquez would eventually
join the ICA board.) With the help of the business planning group, Medvedow set out to disrupt the
unproductive conversations of the existing board about the future of the ICA. As Medvedow recalled,
“We looked at a number of questions. What kind of audience did we want? Did we want to stay small
and focused or did we want to broaden our offerings? What should be the role of education? We
explored questions involving content, specifically if we should become a collecting institution. And
finally we looked at whether we could do this work in our current Back Bay location.” It didn’t take
long for the group to decide that the ICA needed to grow its audience, expand its educational
initiatives, form a task force to look at the idea of collecting, and begin looking for a new space. (On
two separate occasions, directors of the ICA who preceded Medvedow explored relocating the
museum but were unable to garner board or community support.)
Medvedow’s attention then turned to learning about the Boston real estate market. While she didn’t
know if or how it would be possible, she was clear that the ICA needed to be located on the water:
“Our job is uniquely difficult in that Boston is not a city that embraces contemporary art. Since
everything about our work is unfamiliar, we’re always fighting for an audience. We needed to be
located on the water in order to attract people and motivate them to come back time and again. And a
waterfront location was also a perfect metaphor for what we do which is to expand horizons.”
After many months of knocking on doors to get information on Boston waterfront real estate,
Mevedow’s research picked up momentum when the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Justine
Liff, referred her to Ed Sidman, one of Boston’s big real estate developers and a major philanthopist.
Sidman suggested they meet in the lobby of his firm’s building as opposed to his office, a request
which sent an immediate negative signal to Medvedow. But she succeeded in flipping the switch:
9 Christine Temin, “Seeing the Light,” The Boston Globe, April 19, 1998.
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After listening to my pitch, he was ready to send me off with a name of the next person I should
talk to when I said to him, ‘You know, I swim in your pool at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish
Community Center in Newton.’ And he says, ‘Oh really.’ And I say, ‘Yes, and I frequently go to
the openings in the center’s gallery.’ The next thing you know he’s saying, ‘Let’s go to my
office.’ So now we’re in his office and I’ve honed in on his passion which is how to get members
of a JCC to engage in Jewish continuity and not just athletics. We ended up having a deep,
intense conversation. The next thing I know, he has given me a couple good names to pursue for
waterfront real estate. And for the next couple of years, I meet with him regularly to advise him
on his project.
Following up on Sidman’s recommendations, Medvedow eventually landed a meeting with the
Boston 2000 committee. Put together by Mayor Thomas Menino to plan millenial activities for
Boston, one of the committee’s responsibilities was deciding who or what should be designated the
.75 acre parcel, also known as Parcel J, on Boston’s Fan Pier.
Little did she know, the committee would end up being Medvedow’s last stop in her real estate
search.
Fan Pier’s Parcel J
Described as “a wasteland of parking lots,”10 Parcel J was just a tiny sliver of the 21 acre, 3-million
square foot, nine-block industrial area owned by the Pritzker family, which was slated to be part of
the largest waterfront development in Boston’s history. The proposed plan was to populate the space
with 800 residential units, 1,000 hotel rooms, 150,000 square feet of civic and cultural space, parks
and open space, and an extension of a walkway along Boston Harbor.11 In a deal with the city of
Boston, which enabled them to expand the size of their proposed hotels,12 the Pritzkers agreed to
donate Parcel J to a cultural site.
Medvedow met with the Boston 2000 committee in the spring of 1999. It was a Thursday. Impressed
with her ideas for a future ICA on the waterfront, the committee suggested she present to the Boston
2000 subcommittee on Parcel J. Much to her disbelief, Medvedow found herself committing to giving
a formal, “this-is-what-we-have-in-mind” presentation the next Tuesday. As she recalled, “The
decision to go after the parcel was a big leap of faith. It was very hard to imagine we could make the
case given how weak we were.”
Scraping together $5,000, Medvedow hired an architect who drew a mock-up of a future ICA perched
on Parcel J. In giving the architect directives, Medvedow was concerned with one detail: that the
10 Geoff Edgers, “How They Did It,” The Boston Globe, December 6, 2006.
11 “Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston Announces Four Internationally Recognized Architecture Firms….” ICA Press Release, December 13, 2000.
12 It is not uncommon in commercial real estate for a developer to designate a parcel of land in exchange for being allowed to add height to a building as a way
to maximize revenue and earning potential.
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structure fit on the land that was available. Along with the mock-up, Medvedow and a couple ICA
staff members spent the weekend before the presentation making boards of eight museums — ranging
in size and cost from the Milwaukee Art Museum to Minneapolis’ Weisman Art Museum to the Getty
in Los Angeles — that had been built in different cities since the early 1990s. Their idea was to stress
the point that these museums had catapulted civic life and economic development in their respective
cities and had played an important role in urban rebirth.
Medvedow arrived on the designated Tuesday to present and found to her surprise that the ICA was
one of three finalists who were presenting. One of the other finalists, a collaboration involving the
Wang Center, Boston Ballet and Boston Lyric Opera, proposed a three-stage complex, described as a
cross between Sydney’s Opera House and New York’s Lincoln Center. The $100 million complex
would include a 2,400-seat opera and ballet house, a 500-700-seat playhouse, and a floating stage that
could accommodate an audience of 1,000. Due to its size, the complex was expected to exceed the
allotted space and would require some additional land that had been set aside by the Pritzkers for an
office tower. The other finalist was a relatively unknown Boston-area entrepreneur who wanted to
develop a $40 million Fan Pier Performing Arts and Film Center that would include a 700-seat recital
hall and 125-seat partially open-air theater.
In her pitch, Medvedow stressed that the new ICA would be “a public destination and the
architectural heartbeat of the city.”13 Funded by a $40 million capital campaign, the four-story
building would occupy 60,000 square feet and would include a 400-seat theater, and a roof sculpture
garden. It would hold up to 2,000 visitors. Medvedow left the presentation thinking that the museum
had a slim shot, at best, of winning Parcel J, but she was increasingly convinced that the waterfront
was the right location for a new ICA. The committee’s final decision would be announced in
November.
Drumming up Support
In the intervening six months, Medvedow got busy educating the public, particularly local politicians,
residents and area artists, on the ICA’s plans for a new home on Fan Pier. To help her sell the idea,
Medvedow approached Gloria Larson, who at the time was a partner at one of Boston’s premier law
firms who specialized in real estate development and government. At the time, Larson was chairman
of the board of the Convention Center Authority and was in the middle of her own campaign to get a
new convention center built in South Boston. As Larson explained, “I joined the ICA ‘campaign’ as
both a lawyer and an advocate. I felt like Jill and I were traveling down the same path together.”
In planning the campaign’s strategy, Larson recalled: “We asked ourselves, ‘Who do we need to
touch who normally won’t get touched in a process like this? Who would normally never support
building an ICA on South Boston’s waterfront?’” After a bit of reflection, Larson decided to visit a
couple of South Boston’s key political leaders. Larson took Medvedow to meet James Kelly, who at
13 Maureen Dezell, “ICA Faces Fund-raising Challenge,” The Boston Globe, March 10 2000.
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the time was the city council’s president, state senator Stephen Lynch, and state representative Jack
Hart, all of whom she knew from her law practice and her work on the convention center. The
purpose of the meeting was to educate them on the ICA’s development plans and to hear their
concerns.
After introductions, Kelly began the conversation by saying, “You can’t tell us you’re going to build
a contemporary art museum next to Southie.” Medvedow responded by saying, “Let me tell you about
it. Let me tell you about the programs we have and how I want to bring kids from South Boston in,
and how the world of art is an opportunity to expand their horizons in ways that I know you would
support.” Hearing her out, Kelly’s concerns turned to the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit.
Shown at the ICA in the early 1990s, the exhibit caused great controversy for its sexually explicit
photographs. “You have to promise me you will never do a show like that again,” Kelly stated.
Medvedow retorted with: “You know I can’t make that promise. That would be like me asking you to
promise that you’ll never do anything controversial again. But how about I promise you that if I’m
going to do anything like that, I will give you notice so that you won’t be caught by surprise.” Kelly
quickly responded with, “Well if you ever do anything like that I will organize a picket.” “Well if you
organize a picket,” Medvedow said, “I’ll bring you coffee, because that kind of attention is exactly
what we need to build an audience for the ICA in Boston.” It was at this point in the exchange that
Kelly turned to Larson and said, “Larson, I like your friend Jill.”
In November 1999 the Boston 2000 committee announced that the ICA had won the Parcel J
competition. Medvedow believed one of the main reasons the ICA was chosen was because the
mock-up demonstrated that from a space perspective, the museum would be a perfect fit. In addition,
the ICA had successfully proven its financial viability to the committee by identifying $12 million—
of which $6 million would come from the sale of its Boylston building—of the estimated $40 million
needed for the project. Larson believed that Medvedow’s ability to assess her audience before sharing
her vision was key to sealing the deal. “She had a way of presenting to large and small audiences the
concept of a new ICA so that it became something they could own too. She was able to tell the story
in ways that each audience could hear.”
Of course, there were many skeptics of the committee’s decision and the ICA’s plan. Some thought
that locating the ICA away from other cultural attractions was a mistake. After all, it had not been
able to attract visitors when it was located in the heart of Boston’s tourist district. Then there was the
whole issue of money, something the ICA had little of and had no history of raising. While the land
was free, the building and operational costs would more than test the museum’s fundraising
capabilities. As Paul Buttenwieser, ICA board member and Boston philanthropist, put it, “The key
question is whether the wider community of philanthropic and arts supporters will see this as a
credible project they want to be involved with.”14
14 Maureen Dezell, “ICA Faces Fund-Raising Challenge,” The Boston Globe, March 10, 2000.
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But then there were those who were quietly cheering for the ICA. As one Boston Globe journalist
pointed out, “While informed observers think it unlikely the ICA will realize its goals, an unusual
number hold out hope that it will. In a city better known for its enthusiasm for sports, politics and
revenge than for boosterism, optimists and cynics admire the organization for attempting to defy the
formidable odds against building something innovative in Boston.”15
And then there was the ICA’s biggest cheerleader. As Larson noted, “Jill believed in the vision
herself. She had no doubt that it could be done.”
Now What?
After winning the right to build on Parcel J, one of Medvedow’s first orders of business was to hire a
director of development, a position that had not previously existed at the ICA. A consultant
Medvedow had hired to help develop a fundraising and endowment strategy suggested she talk to the
MFA’s marketing director Paul Bessire. This same consultant, however, warned Medvedow that
Bessire would never leave the MFA for the ICA. She wanted to talk to him nevertheless.
Meeting over a drink, Medvedow and Bessire connnected immediately after discovering they lived in
the same neighborhood and their kids went to the same school. When the conversation turned to the
purpose of their meeting Medvedow was blunt: “Why,” she asked, “would you rather stay at the MFA
than be a part of making something totally new that could reshape how the city of Boston thinks
about contemporary art?”
By spring 2000, Bessire was the ICA’s new Director of External Relations. Shortly after his arrival
the ICA launched a $50 million “Campaign for the New ICA” — which eventually grew to $62
million — on the back of $6 million that had been committed by two ICA trustees. As Bessire
explained, launching a campaign with far less than 50% of funds already raised was a very
unconventional strategy, but it was one that made sense for an organization that wanted to send a
message to the community: “The strategy was to demonstrate that there was a commitment on the
part of the board and the institution to make this project happen and a good fundraising strategy
always begins with the family.”
In concert with developing a fundraising strategy and finding and hiring the right talent to oversee it,
Medvedow was eager to bring in new blood—which was to say business leaders with clout16 —to the
ICA’s 35-member board, and ease out those whose vision was not aligned with where she was taking
the museum. Success in winning the rights to the land coupled with Medvedow’s vision of investing
in Boston’s future as opposed to its past, Bessire noted, had put the ICA in a very different light in the
eyes of potential board members. By early 2001, there were 13 new members, the majority of whom
15 Maureen Dezell, “ICA Faces Fund-Raising Challenge,” The Boston Globe, March 10, 2000.
16 Geoff Edgers, “How They Did It,” The Boston Globe, December 6, 2006.
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came from the private equity, venture capital, and financial services sector. (See Exhibit 1 for list of
those who joined the ICA board between 1998 and 2001.)
Although Medvedow’s to-do list after winning the rights to build on Parcel J was populated with
tasks relating to the museum’s future home, she never lost site of the importance of not only keeping
the ICA up and running—and this included bringing in high-profile artists like Cornelia Parker,
Olafur Eliasson, and Ellen Gallagher, and sponsoring public art projects such as Art on the Emerald
Necklace that received national recognition—but publicly repositioning the ICA by building
excitement for its future and demonstrating the legitimate need for a new building. As Rawn noted, “I
cite this as one of the most notable elements of Jill’s leadership. Too often you see institutions plunge
ahead on a new capital investment and they really let the existing institution wither and put
themselves at risk for not succeeding in the new place.”
One of the most notable ways Medvedow involved the public in the future ICA was in the selection
of architects.
Selecting an Architect
The ICA began its architect search with a couple of basic criteria. As Cipolla explained in early 2001,
“We want an architect with a deep understanding of the civic. This is not just a building, not just an
interior showcase. It has a civic role. A lot depends on what happens outside the four walls.”17 In
addition, Medvedow noted that the museum was looking for an individual or a firm that had not
completed a prominent building in the United States: “The ICA has a long tradition of supporting the
work of emerging artists.”18
The ICA traveled down a fairly unconventional path when it came to the actual selection process.
Instead of following the typical competition approach whereby a select number of firms would be
paid an agreed upon sum of money to come up with a specific proposal, Medvedow decided on a
different course of action. She explained:
One of our board members who was an architect said to me, ‘Be careful about competitions
because you get what you pay for. In order to have a healthy competition, you will need to offer
up significant funds so that architects will invest the time it will take to come up with smart, well
thought through proposals.’ So, we decided not to do a competition because we were certain we
didn’t have the money. And given that we’re in the business of reviewing artists’ work over time
we felt that we could judge the work of architects ourselves.
With that decision made, Medvedow put together an Architect Selection Committee. Headed by Nick
Pritzker, the committee included Medvedow, Cipolla, Henrique de Campos Meirelles, President of
17 Robert Campbell, “Designers Vie for a Shot at the ICA,” The Boston Globe, March 22, 2001.
18 Robert Campbell, “A Vision Fulfilled at Harbor’s Edge,” The Boston Globe, December 1, 2006.
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Fleet Global Banking, Barbara Lee, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees and philanthropist, and Ellen
Poss, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees and philanthropist. Medvedow decided not to include any
architects in the group, as she didn’t want the committee to be driven by any one architectural agenda.
The committee’s first assignment was to establish goals and criteria, which would help guide the ICA
through the selection process. To help the committee, which had no baseline knowledge of
architecture, Medvedow hired an architectural historian from Harvard University to lead a seminar on
contemporary architecture for the group. The historian helped the committee establish goals and
criteria (Exhibit 2), and drew up a list of 30 architectural firms for consideration.
Using the list of goals and criteria as a guide, the committee scaled down the list of 30 firms to twelve
and ultimately to four. The chosen four included Studio Granda from Iceland, Boston-based Office
d’A, Peter Zumthor of Switerland, and Diller + Scofidio from New York. Medvedow traveled to meet
the four firms and each was invited to Boston to present their work to the committee.
Medvedow recognized that in order for the ICA to matter to a wider audience, more people had to be
involved in the dialogue on the ICA’s building plans. On March 24, 2001, the ICA hosted “Building
A Vision: Four Architects’ Views”, a public presentation at the Copley Theater where the final four
firms were asked to present. Medvedow laid down one rule for the presenters: because the purpose of
the presentation was to enable the firms to show their work and discuss their philosophies towards
contemporary art, they were not to present their ideas for building a new ICA. She explained her
reasoning: “The minute there’s an image out there of what architect X could create I feared that I
would have to manage a multitude of stakeholders who were wedded to architect X’s proposal. But
what if we didn’t choose that proposal or what if we chose it and it substantially changed during the
design process? I didn’t want to be caught in that kind of public negativity.”
The presentations drew an impressive crowd. “People were literally waiting in line to get in,”
Medvedow recalled. “There was not an unfilled seat in the theater. This level of transparency in
museum planning had never happened before in Boston. There was enormous enthusiasm behind our
out-of-the-box, if not downright off-the-wall project, and the public was thrilled that we wanted to
share our ideas. In addition there was great excitement over what might happen down on the
waterfront.” While not responsible for the ultimate decision, attendees were queried on their thoughts
through a survey with questions that included: What did you like about the work presented? What do
you think are some of the most important design opportunities provided by the waterfront site? Do
you find any of the architects’ design philosophies to be particularly responsive to the institutional
mission of the ICA?19
Of the four presenters, Peter Zumthor and Diller + Scofidio stood out as much for their work as for
their general philosophy towards architecture.
19 Robert Campbell, “Designers Vie for a Shot at the ICA,” The Boston Globe, March 22, 2001.
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Diller + Scofidio
Winners of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1999—marking the first time architects had
been awarded the grant—the husband and wife team of Richard Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller was
known for integrating media and architecture. As Diller stated during their presentation, “Architecture
and new technologies need not be adversaries. The union can actually be quite fertile.”
Diller + Scofidio’s resume was quite deep when it came to the work they had done on the inside of
museum walls. They had worked with many visual and performing artists and had completed
numerous art installations. Their most well known indoor architectural work was the renovation of the
Brasserie restaurant located in the Seagram building in New York. As Diller explained, one of their
goals in redesigning the space was to find ways to connect the restaurant, which was below ground
and without natural light, back to the street. They accomplished this by getting a blurred video
snapshot of every person as they came through the revolving door. The image was displayed above
the bar, with every new entrance image pushing the previous 15 to the right. (See Exhibit 3.)
When it came to building, however, their resume was quite thin; in fact they had never built a
building in the United States. Their most renowned work was the Blur Building, a media pavilion
built for the 2002 Swiss Expo in Neuchatal, which was less a building and more a suspended platform
enveloped by a man-made cloud of fog. (See Exhibit 4.) Blur, which was a temporary structure
where no one lived or worked, showcased Diller + Scofidio’s belief that “architecture must always
question material and spatial conventions.”
Peter Zumthor
Of the four finalists, Peter Zumthor was the best known and the most experienced architect, with the
art museum in Bregenz, Austria (Kunsthaus Bregenz) and the thermal baths (Therme Vals) in
Switzerland being two of his most famous works. (See Exhibits 5 and 6.) As one journalist wrote,
“Although [Zumthor] cultivates the disarming role of simple artisan-architect, he is responsible for
some of the most radical buildings of our time. His sophisticated, demanding, exquisite structures of
rigidly reductive minimalism, in which every detail has enormous aesthetic and emotional power,
create their own world of Zen-like, concentrated beauty – an immutable perfectionism that probably
scares off as many clients as it attracts.”20
Zumthor was not known for a particular style, but, as one observer noted, a number of themes were
interwoven throughout much of his work: celebration of place, engagement of all the human senses,
deep understanding of space, light and materiality.21 For Zumthor, architecture “[had] it’s own realm.
20 Ada Louise Huxtable, “Architecture’s Best Kept Secrets,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2001.
21 Peter Davey, “Zumthor the Shaman,” Architectrual Review, October 1, 1998.
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It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a
symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it…”22
While his work was renowned, so was his need to control. “I like to control the buildings I do,” he
admitted to the crowd gathered in the Copley Theater. During his presentation Zumthor recounted his
frustration towards a project he was awarded in Berlin that was never complete: “This was eight
damned years ago and for eight years these people wanted me to make compromises and
compromises,” he explained showing great frustration, and giving members of the Architect Selection
Committee some pause.23
Decision
In April 2001, the ICA announced that Diller + Scofidio had been chosen to build the new building.
Liz Diller believed they were tapped because of their belief that there needed to be a partnership
between the new building and the art it would house: “From the beginning we said neither would play
a supporting role for the other.” From Medvedow’s perspective, while the choice of Diller + Scofidio
was motivated largely by their “sheer brilliance,” there was another important reason: “Because they
didn’t have a lot of experience they had as much to gain as we did, and consequently as much to lose
as we did. So we all had as much at stake to make it work.”
By the time the ICA broke ground in September 2004, half of the $62 million had been committed,
the majority coming from the ICA’s board of trustees and corporate donors. Once again, the ICA was
relying on an unconventional and risky development strategy. As Bessire explained, “Development
people always say the minute you break ground, people assume it’s a done deal and will be reluctant
to give money. We broke ground and people started believing in us.”
Stumbling Blocks
The ICA faced several major challenges in its effort to erect a new home on Fan Pier. As Medvedow
explained, building a new waterfront property in Boston was an “arduous” task when it came to
obtaining all the required state and city approvals. In fact the ICA had to get dozens of approvals,
worth millions of dollars in legal fees, between the time it was granted the land and when it opened its
doors in 2006. As Medvedow noted, the ICA’s ability to navigate these waters was surprising to
many: “A lot of people thought that even though we had gotten the land, the process of getting all the
approvals would end up killing us. We learned quickly who we needed to talk to and convince to
grant us the approvals we needed.”
Just months away from breaking ground on the building, the Pritzker family’s development plans for
the 21 acre lot surrounding the ICA were aborted. The family announced in late 2003 that it would be
putting the land up for sale. Honoring the commitments they made to the city of Boston, the Pritzkers
22 Peter Davey, “Zumthor the Shaman,” Architectrual Review, October 1, 1998.
23 Geoff Edgers, “How They Did It,” The Boston Globe, December 6, 2006.
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let it be known publicly that the new buyer would have to agree to the building commitments they
made to the city of Boston, including setting aside the .75 acre parcel for the ICA.24 The Pritzker’s
decision was a big disappointment for the ICA. As Medvedow noted, “We lost a partner that
recognized the ICA as an asset.”
Finally, in April 2006, just five months before the new building was scheduled to open, the ICA faced
another major change. Macomber, a 100-year old construction firm that was considered one of
Boston’s leading builders, had fallen months behind schedule and was dealing with the legal
aftermath of a recent accident on one of its construction sites which claimed three lives. The ICA
responded by bringing in another firm to complete the work. In August, Medvedow announced that
because of construction delays the ICA would have to delay its September opening. In explaining the
postponement, Medvedow told The Boston Globe, “Our building is beautiful, it’s close to completion,
and it works. But you only get one chance to make a first impression. When we open, we are going to
hit the ground running. In the long life of this building, this is a very insignificant and brief hiccup.”25
On December 10, 2006, the new ICA opened to more than 8,000 visitors. (See Exhibit 7.)
If They Build It, Will They Come?
The ICA’s ability to oversee the construction of a new building on Boston’s waterfront by an
architecture firm that had never built a building in the United States, raise over $75 million—
surpassing the capital campaign goal of $62 million—and welcome over 280,000 visitors in its first
year—well over the 200,000 that was needed to break even—was, in most people’s minds,
miraculous. The question posed by one museum director a year before the new ICA opened its doors,
“Do you really think there are five times the market for the ICA’s program than there is right now and
that the only reason they’re not getting them now is building size?”26 had been answered “yes”.
But sustaining the attendance level would be the main challenge going forward. New museums
tended to attract huge crowds in their first year of operation only to see attendance taper off. San
Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, which opened its new building in 1995 saw its attendance soar
from 250,000 to 800,000 in its first year, and then come back down to 600,000 in its second year. The
Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts more than doubled its attendance in year one only to see it
decline in year two. As that museum’s deputy director stated, “The first year [attendance] doesn’t
matter. It’s everybody looking at it because it’s there. The ‘lookyloos,’ I like to call them.”27
But in the case of the ICA, the ‘lookyloos’ seemed to be holding their gaze. In 2008 and 2009, the
ICA had a combined attendance record of well over 450,000.
24 Thomas Palmer, “Fan Pier Site up for Sale,” The Boston Globe, December 19. 2003.
25 Geoff Edgers, “Museum Sees Weeks-Long Construction Delay,” The Boston Globe, August 4, 2006.
26 Geoff Edgers, “Under Construction: An Arts Renaissance,” The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005.
27 Ibid.
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Exhibit 1 New Additions to the ICA Board (1998-2001)
Pat Stavaridis, Art Collector
Sheryl Marshall, Vice President, Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette
Vivien Hassenfeld, Designer, Hasbro
Mary Schneider Enriquez, art critic and independent curator
Henrique de Campos Meirelles, President and Chief Operating Officer, Bank of Boston
Robert Davoli, Sigma Partners
Charles Rodgers, Chairman, WFD Consulting
Andrew Goldfarb, Managing Director, JAFCO America Ventures
Anthony Terrana, oral surgeon
Tim Ferguson, Senior Managing Partner, Putnam Investments
Jonathan Seelig, Co-Founder, Akamai
Nicholas Adams, Senior Vice President, Partner and Equity Portfolio Manager,
Wellington Management
Jean-Francois Formela, Investment Principal, Atlas Venture Capital
Source: ICA.
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Exhibit 2 Goals and Criteria for New ICA
Goals
Architectural
Advancement
For almost 65 years, the Institute of Contemporary Art has played a pivotal
international role as a vanguard institution by championing new artistic practice
and delivering innovative programming. The ICA’s new building should advance
architectural thought and practice, reflecting the artistic mission of the ICA.
A Powerful
Visitor
Experience
The architect selected to design the new ICA should demonstrate a sensitivity to
the exhibition and interpretation of contemporary art and to providing a powerful
visitor experience. Through programs, architecture, education and technology, the
new ICA should provide future generations with access to the finest examples of
creativity, learning and inspiration.
Civic
Responsibility
The new ICA will be a visual and physical destination for Bostonians and visitors
alike, and a cornerstone of the new Fan Pier. It will relate to the intimate scale of
individual human beings while responding to the unique character of its urban
context and waterfront location. The chosen architect should have a sense of
responsibility to the public realm and a capacity to create a building with
international public significance for Boston’s 21st century.
Criteria
Advances an architectural vision for the future
Creates a building whose presence can shape the waterfront
Innovates spatially
Scales building to human proportions
Shapes and uses natural light well
Attends to detail and construction
Possesses a vision of the museum’s public role in the city
Focuses on only a few, important projects
Respects the ICA’s professional and financial resources
Has a career trajectory where a breakthrough building is likely
Source: ICA.
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Exhibit 3 The Brasserie
Source: Diller + Scofidio
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Exhibit 4 Blur Building, Swiss Expo
Source: Diller + Scofidio
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Exhibit 5 Kunsthaus Bregenz
Source: Hans Peter Schaefer.
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Exhibit 6 Therme Vals (Thermal Baths)
Source: Roland Zumbüh.
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Exhibit 7 The New ICA
Source: Christopher Peterson.