The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has named its new expansion with an irresistible pun, the Watershed, which is a reference both to its location along Boston Harbor and what the museum hopes the new venue will symbolize for the city’s arts community. On a sunny morning this past Friday, journalists and other guests headed to East Boston for its official unveiling, many taking a ten-minute ferry ride from the museum’s main location across the harbor. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, politicians of all ranks praised the ICA’s director, Jill Medvedow, for altering East Boston’s profile by giving the neighborhood its first major arts destination. The city of Boston named June 22 ICA Watershed Day, and the state of Massachusetts gave Medvedow a citation.
The new venue, located in a former copper pipe and sheet metal factory first opened in the 19th century, was renovated by Anmahian Winton Architects at a cost of $10 million, and gives the ICA an additional 15,000 square feet of exhibition spaces. (By comparison, floors two through four at the New Museum in New York occupy 12,000 square feet.) The Watershed will be open during the warm months of the year and will become a site for the type of large-scale solo presentations that don’t fit comfortably within its Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed home, which opened in 2006.
“It might be possible that the site chose me, because I see it from my office,” Medvedow said with a chuckle as people poured into the Watershed on Friday. “We always knew, when we built the ICA, that there were going to be buildings that came up around and behind it. As we began to think about an expansion, we started to think about the ways in which we could welcome more and more people into the ICA community, how to expand the circle, how to grow our audience, how to create extraordinary encounters with works of art. It seemed like an important and perfect spot.”
The ICA has emphasized efforts it is making to connect with the local community through the Watershed. Admission is free (the ferry is included with museum admission, though the Watershed can be accessed via a 10-minute walk from the nearest T stop), and all exhibition texts are presented in English and Spanish, in the hope of being more accessible to East Boston residents, more than half of whom speak Spanish. But some locals have regarded the Watershed with suspicion, worrying in one New York Times report that the ICA’s arrival will accelerate gentrification in an area that’s long been a home for working-class immigrants.
Inside the builing, Anmahian Winton Architects has crafted an elegant compromise between the building’s industrial past and the needs of an art institution. Parts of the ceilings are still made of corrugated steel panels, and some of the walls have been left raw. Hooks and chains hang on them, but now they are joined by wires and projectors, which are on hand to display works by the Los Angeles–based video artist Diana Thater, who has the inaugural exhibition in the space. (It opens the public on July 4.)
Thater’s 1999 installation Delphine—a five-channel projection of a scuba diver with dolphins—is the star of the show, with its videos splayed dramatically across floor and walls such that one has to move through pixelated footage of the watery depths, which is apropos for the location. It’s an exemplary work by Thater, who, since the 1990s, has been making work about perception, nature, and the ways moving images are perceived.
“One of the things Diana does extremely well is combining ephemeral materials—that is, moving image, light, and color—with architecture to create singular installations that really address the viewer and their body,” Eva Respini, the ICA’s chief curator, said as dolphins swam across the Watershed’s walls. “So, when we were thinking about this building, which is raw and large-scale, we were looking for artists who would really take on this space and its unique architecture.”
Thater is a master of transforming white-cube spaces with video, and she goes about that in unexpected ways at the ICA Watershed. The first work in the show is Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), 2008, which is exhibited on the floor. Close-up footage of monarch butterflies’ wings, captured during the animals’ migration from Canada to Mexico, dots the screens; in between the monitors are Creamsicle-colored fluorescent lights that recall Dan Flavin sculptures. The year Thater shot these butterflies, a winter frost had killed off millions of their kind. The piece is a reminder of the tenuousness of their existence and—given the out-of-focus look of the footage—of the ephemerality of moving images, which can disappear with one errant click.
Above all this lush footage of bluish flowers and magic-hour sunsets, Thater has installed in window panes in the Watershed’s ceiling a translucent element that resembles a color spectrum, which casts multihued light down into the show. “It was really important to Jill and the ICA that we not break this space up too much, that you see the length of it. That’s why the first thing I designed for this show was this chromatic spectrum of color, because I wanted to show off the space,” Thater said. “We wanted people to see the breadth and the expanse of the space.”
The piece draws out the Watershed’s grandeur—and the potential it holds for future shows. Respini said she hopes that the space’s size will facilitate completely different experiences from those on offer across the water at the ICA’s main building. “It’s really meant to augment what we already give viewers—the experience of art,” she said.