In an age when more than 880 billion photographs are taken each year—with more than 1.8 billion uploaded to the Internet every day—how can museums keep up? That is a question now facing the International Center of Photography, New York’s leading institution devoted exclusively to the medium. With the museum, in existence since 1974, on the brink of opening a new exhibition space on the Bowery, how it adapts to today’s image revolution is an issue that’s key to its survival.
“Many like to say, ‘We are all photographers.’ I disagree,” said ICP executive director Mark Lubell, who assumed his position in 2013, after serving as director of Magnum Photo from 2004 to 2011. “I don’t think we are all photographers, but we are all communicating with each other. I think that is exciting territory and ICP will play a big part in having a space where that conversation is explored.”
Lubell has a vision for the new Bowery space that is less of a museum and more of an open forum with extensive public programming. Situated at 250 Bowery, almost directly across from the New Museum and in the heart of the Lower East Side gallery district, the new facility will span the ground floor and basement. The 11,000-square-foot space, which was purchased for $23.5 million in 2015, will include a cafe and bookstore in the lobby as well as more than 2,500 square feet for admission-free activities, such as computer stations for surfing ICP’s archives or uploading viewers’ contributions. In Lubell’s view, it is now time for ICP to shift from exhibitions of historic material and contemporary art photography to shows focusing on the likes of Instagram, Facebook, and drone photography.
“I think the new building is capable of representing what ICP has been, is, and wants to be in the field of exhibitions of photography and visual images in general,” said ICP board president Jeffrey A. Rosen. “It’s in an energetic area of New York, and it provides an ideal space for the future of ICP in terms of looking at how photography and the making of visual images is changing and the impact that that’s having on society at large.”
For Lubell and Rosen, this view of ICP’s future is consonant with its past. Founded in 1974 by Cornell Capa, the brother of famed war photojournalist Robert Capa, ICP was initially devoted to “concerned photography”—the kind of humanistic documentary work often overlooked by photo departments in major museums. In 1994, a shift took place when Willis Hartshorn took over as director. He hired former New Museum curator Brian Wallis in 1999 to expand ICP’s program to engage substantially with contemporary art photography and to present a much more international array of exhibitions. In 2000, ICP moved from its original location in a town house on upper Fifth Avenue to 1133 Avenue of the Americas, where it had two floors of exhibition space as well as a floor for its extensive archives of over 150,000 images and a floor for staff offices. It was all practically rent-free, due to the generosity of its landlord, the Durst Organization. The museum’s school is located directly across the street at 1114 Avenue of Americas.
Throughout its 40-year history, ICP has kept up with the times, albeit on a limited budget and with an attendance of about 150,000 a year. Wallis brought in seasoned curators Christopher Phillips and Carol Squiers, who initiated the Triennial of Photography and Video in 2003. The next year, just two months after the pictures from Abu Ghraib were published in the New York Times, they were exhibited at ICP, demonstrating the museum’s ability to respond quickly to current events. In 2006, Okwui Enwezor, as guest curator, organized “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography.” More recently, New Yorker critic Vince Aletti assisted in staging a year’s worth of exhibitions devoted to fashion photography.
Now, under Lubell, ICP seems to be reaching a new stage in its development. Wallis resigned earlier this year to serve as advisor and curator for Artur Walther, a former board member who has a contemporary-photography collection, housed in a private museum in Germany and a project space in Chelsea. Lubell has not named a successor for Wallis and is considering new ways of organizing the exhibition program. Photography writer and curator Charlotte Cotton has been appointed the first curator-in-residence at ICP.
“Engagement with the digitized world is something that every department at ICP has to look at,” said Squiers, who is still researching what her next show will be. “Certainly the challenges posed to photography by digital media and the continuing migration of digital content to handheld devices is something we must contend with. Nobody walks in with a box of gelatin silver prints anymore.”
“Robert Capa was experimenting with technology such as faster films; without them, he couldn’t have photographed the Spanish Civil War,” said Fred Ritchin, the new dean of the ICP School, adding, “If Capa were alive today, he would certainly be on Instagram.” Prior to joining ICP, Ritchin was a professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and co-director of the NYU and Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Human Rights program. According to Ritchin, ICP’s board has totally supported updating the curriculum and does not view it as conflicting with the museum’s original mission or with Capa’s vision. “I respect enormously the 20th-century traditions, but I don’t see the issue being which technology you use,” he said. “The question is whether you are making impactful images—not how you got there to do that.”
“Instagram could not interest me less,” said Aletti, who has guest-curated a number of shows at ICP. “Instagram is an exciting way for people to communicate, but it is so ephemeral and so of the moment. How do you build a show around that, and why would anyone want to see a show about that when they can sit at home and scroll through their feed?” Aletti said he would reserve judgment on Lubell’s direction until the opening show, but he expressed concern that the opening dates have not yet been announced. [Ed. Note: This article went to press in early September. On October 8, the New York Times announced that ICP’s new location on the Bowery will open in May 2016.]
ICP has been shuttered since the closing of a Sebastião Salgado exhibition in January 2015, and while the museum initially announced that it would reopen in the Bowery space in fall 2015, that date has now been pushed back to January or even March 2016. Though ICP has selected the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 250 Bowery remains an untouched, raw space. And, no shows have been announced for the 2016 season.
“I think what they are doing right now is an interim solution,” said a former board member on the condition of anonymity. “But that’s not the long-term solution because long-term it isn’t enough space to get the institution together.” Indeed, while 250 Bowery will provide exhibition space, there is no room for the school, whose current lease will be up in 2018. Also, staff offices and the archive have now been moved to Mana Contemporary, a cultural center in Jersey City, where ICP has 15,000 additional square feet at an unnamed additional cost. ICP refused to discuss figures for its current overall budget, but according to the website Charity Navigator, in 2013, overall expenses had grown to $18 million a year, with annual income, including grants and board donations, bringing in less than $16 million. As with many museums, ICP had been running at a loss for several years.
In 2008, under Hartshorn, ICP tried to find a new location, anticipating the end of its lease in 2015, but with the financial downturn, it was unable to raise sufficient funds. Hartshorn retired in 2012 for health reasons, and there were further delays when his chosen replacement, Mark Robbins, departed after a year and a half to head the American Academy in Rome. Though Lubell did an admirable job raising over $20 million for the new building and renovation, that figure falls far short of the $100 million to $150 million estimated to be needed to find a space big enough for the school, archive, offices, and galleries. It is possible that Lubell might turn a profit by selling 250 Bowery and putting the revenue toward a bigger plan—something in the $1.1 billion Essex Crossing development planned for the Lower East Side, for example. (A Warhol Museum satellite was supposed to move into the space as its cultural component.)
“Every major art museum in the world at this point has a photography program up and running. ICP has the advantage of not limiting itself to photography that comes from the fine art realm or is considered fine art,” said Christopher Phillips, who is trying to plan his next show, though an opening date has not yet been set. “In that sense ICP still has an enormous range of visual culture pretty much to itself, and hopefully that will provide material for a lively exhibition program moving forward.”
And, said Rosen, “The Museum of Modern Art has a great photo department, and the Met, but it’s a very small part of what they do overall. When photography is all you do,” he added, “you have to be superb at it, and you have to be relevant. So we exist not only to think about what photography is today, but to think about how it is changing and what it will be in the future.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “Instagram Killed Photography’s Stars.”
UPDATE 10/19/2015, 12:20 p.m.: This post has been updated with the following editor's note: This article went to press in early September. On October 8, the New York Times announced that ICP's new location on the Bowery will open in May 2016.