Countdown to Launch

Inside the busy preparation to open the city’s new architectural jewel, the Institute for Contemporary Art.

The architecturally arresting new Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University opens its doors Saturday, April 21. Its highly visible gestation has intrigued passersby for many months at the busiest intersection in town, West Broad and Belvidere streets.

The theme of inaugural show, “Declaration,” will fill the galleries, pulling together 70 works by 34 artists from around the planet.

There are startups and then there are startups. How does one — or a Richmond posse of art lovers in this case — even contemplate starting a museum? And an art museum in a midsized community that has only a modicum of broad interest in contemporary work? It’s been 83 years since the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts welcomed its first visitors to the Boulevard in 1935. And nearly a quarter century has passed since the University of Richmond stirred things up significantly in 1996 with the completion of the Modlin Fine Arts Center, and re-branding its visual arts exhibition spaces as the Museums at the University of Richmond.

But be clear of one thing: Despite facing daunting challenges, the ICA folks discourage the M-word to describe their, well, institute. True, the organization won’t be housing or acquiring a permanent collection, but the Greek root for museum is mouseion. It describes a place for the muses or for study. And that definition has pretty much guided the determined and sharply focused founders, leaders and energetic young staff of the ICA as it has approached opening day as well as contemplated the years to come. Now it’s on the cusp of unveiling a new temple to contemporary expression, with all its ramifications, designed by the world-renowned New York-based firm of Steven Holl Architects. And “Declaration,” presenting works in a range of media, aims to reflect our current cultural zeitgeist including a stew whose ingredients include the empowerment of women; neo-Confederates and anti-neo-Confederates; those protesting the loss of black lives and counterprotests; high-school students as well as those who call them pawns; and all who take to the internet, airwaves and streets to express themselves.

The general theme also refers to the leading roles Virginia and Richmond played in sparking the American Revolution and our nation’s founding. Indeed, Patrick Henry’s liberty or death speech was delivered farther east of the ICA on Broad Street and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed into law at 14th and Cary, just down the hill from the VCU medical campus.

It’s afternoon on the Friday before Easter. City workers have the day off and thousands of Richmonders are leaving town or shopping for the holiday. With just three weeks until opening, a reporter and photographer from Style Weekly stop by the ICA. It’s all hands on deck while a handful of early visitors — some expected, others not — stop by for a peek. And while the exhibitions are mostly in place, the tweaking continues.


1:22 p.m.

The only heavy-duty physical construction still underway is just outside the pre-weathered, titanium zinc-clad building in the alley on the south, West Grace Street side, of the building. Nick Jordan and Johnny Campbell, masons with RSG Landscape based in Concord, near Lynchburg, are on hands and knees arranging light gray-hued concrete pavers. “It’s the second time around,” Jordan says while raising his eyebrows just slightly, “The guys [associated with another contractor] who did this job initially didn’t compact the underlying fill appropriately and it settled.”

1:25 p.m.

A few yards away, Curtis Orme, an engaging junior at Woodgrove High School in Loudoun County, and his mother, Virginia Orme, who is focused on staying on schedule, have found a pleasant, if not-so-quiet spot to chill before their next appointment on their campus visit. As heavy traffic either whizzes by or stops for a traffic light, they sit on a long and low retaining wall that defines the site and doubles as a bench. They face the terrace with its reflecting pool and recently planted grasses and shrubs, the latter designed by Maine-based firm of Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture.

Mother and son are oblivious that the surname of a Richmond couple that was among the prime movers in the founding and funding of the ICA, Steve and Kathie Markel, is attached in metal letters to the wall on which they sit. Michael, still a high-school junior, is undecided as to his major should he come to the university.


1:30 p.m.

On the sidewalk near the dramatic West Broad and Belvidere entrance, Randy Oline, an electrician with Bagby Electric of Virginia who lives in Surrey County, installs lighting mechanisms inside one of two informational kiosks that are melded to the walkways. When asked if there’s anything high-tech about the 7-foot-high, flat showcases, he says not: “It’s all standard, I’m old hat. I’ve seen a lot.”

The posters trumpet the opening exhibition title, “Declaration.”


1:35 p.m.

Upon entering the building from Broad and Belvidere you can’t help but be stopped in your tracks by the soaring cathedrallike space and the sublime natural light. The forum conjures the interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and LeCorbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, France. But it is pure Steven Holl, especially on the heels of the firm’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art 2007 expansion in Kansas City. And it’s not the only space inside the building that will elicit a “Wow” moment.

Joseph Seipel, the acting executive director of the institute and dean emeritus of the university’s school of the arts, stands near the reception desk. He’s in a characteristic jovial mood and has just waltzed Julie Levine, the New York based, and widely read architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, through the four-level complex. “She was impressed by the efficiency of the building and its lack of long hallways,” he says.

Seipel has been a respected presence at the university since 1974, the year he arrived to teach in the School of the Arts. During his tenure as sculpture department chairman, the program achieved high rankings among similar programs nationwide.

So it’s no surprise that Seipel is at the ICA on this afternoon. While serving as dean of the art school until his retirement in 2017, he was among the tight-knit coalition of believers that includes the Markel’s, contemporary art collectors Pamela and William Royall, and the late gallery owner Beverly Reynolds, whose vision and determination has brought the project to fruition. It is surprising that Seipel, and not founding director Lisa Freiman, is overseeing the institute’s final touches. Inexplicably, she resigned in January but remains affiliated with the university. The search for her successor is underway.

“It’s really coming along, I think we’re 90 percent,” Seipel says, looking around. “Everyone has been working until midnight. Many of the installations are quite complicated. With 34 artists, there are many cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes the artist is here, sometimes they send an assistant. But it’s going fast now and it’s been exciting.”


2 p.m.

The whir of a floor polisher emanates from the doorway of the 230-seat auditorium, which opens from the forum. The wall surfaces of warm cherry wood panels and seats make a dramatic and pleasing contrast to the forum’s all-white walls. The seats rise on a steep amphitheaterlike incline.

Ed Harlow, who is polishing the floor, is with Service Solutions and works on both the VCU Monroe Park and medical campuses. He says it isn’t his first assignment literally putting the final polish on a building. “Five years ago I worked on getting the university’s Medical Center in Midlothian ready to open,” he says. “There’s a lot of dusting and wiping.”



2:15 p.m.

At the reception desk, in the forum named for the Royalls, the space is flooded in lush, indirect afternoon light. Daniel Nemer, visitor services manager, awaits about 20 of his charges who’ve been hired to serve as gallery guides as much as guards. “They will be called visitor experience associates,” he explains. “They will be in every gallery and be conversational with visitors — or, that’s the plan.”

“People have high expectations of museums in Richmond.”



2:30 p.m.

Just beyond the forum is the cafe, and like most prominent spaces it has been named for a generous donor. The running of the Abby Moore Café has been assigned to Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, the West End purveyor of organic and health foods. This afternoon Jessica Filippelli, the cafe manager at the store on Thompson Street is working with the grocer’s other workers who will run the food and drink service. “Every inch of this place is very interesting,” she says, referring to the overall building as well as the spot where she and her associates will work.



2:35 p.m.

Settled on a banquette along the wall of the cafe is Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl. He came down from New York to meet with the Wall Street Journal.

Glancing up from checking his emails, he says, “I’ve been sitting here enjoying two vantage points. From the corner of my right eye I can see the connectedness of the building to the city,” he says, referring to the traffic flowing south on Belvidere Street beyond the cafe, the forum and board expanse of glass windows. “I can also enjoy the peacefulness of the `thinking field,'” as his firm calls the courtyard on the campus side of the building.

When asked the subject of his emails, McVoy doesn’t hesitate: “There’s the first phase of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston expansion, a $250 million project,” he says. “Then there is the Kennedy Center expansion in Washington, D.C.”



2:45 p.m.

On the building’s Level -1— there is no floor designated as lower level or basement — senior graphic designer Meredith Carrington sits at her desk facing a computer screen. She’s working on labels and title panels for the walls. She is quick to explain that she has worked closely with other talents, including graphic designers in the university relations department, on the extensive marketing and graphics programs required to announce the institute to broad audiences. “It’s quite a fuchsia wave as we get closer to the opening,” she says with a smile, referring to the color of the institute’s identifying symbol and related promotional material.

Carrington may be the most local of those working to open an institution whose western side fronts North Pine Street. “I grew up on Oregon Hill on South Pine Street,” she says.



2:55 p.m.

Not far from Carrington’s station, Michael Lease, the institute’s affable senior facilities manager, has stepped outside his office and expresses slight frustration in finding an answer he’s seeking regarding LEED certification. The acronym, which stands for leadership in energy and environmental design, is the universal designation for energy efficiency and environmental standards in buildings. Incidentally, the building is heated and cooled with a geothermal, or ground-source heat pump, system.


3 p.m.

Back in the forum, seasoned architect McVoy, a product of the University of Virginia and Columbia University architecture schools, has found a comfortable perch on a long, upholstered sofa and is ready to chat about the project on which he has worked for seven years.

“Richmond is one of the midsized U.S. cities that are getting new life, and VCU’s School of the Arts is part of that,” he says. An interesting thing is the potential for architecture to be transformational and have more responsibility for positive change here than in a bigger place like New York City. And there was a real desire for the design to generate such change. From the beginning, Bill Royall said a goal was to raise the level of contemporary work here [both in art and architecture].”

“A question we had at this location was: ‘How do you make it a gateway to the university and a new space for contemporary art?'” McVoy explains. “Steven Holl made numerous model studies to find concepts that uniquely fit that challenge and that could create a vertical building at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere. The goal was to energize the city.”

McVoy says that two biggest interior challenges architecturally were joining the performance space with the forum and establishing the gallery spaces as flexible instruments.

And his feeling concerning the overall architecture?

“The main thing,” McVoy says, “Is the quality of light.”



3:30 p.m.

McVoy is joined by Richmond architect Charles Piper. The senior partner at locally based BCWH Architects, the associate firm for the project, is stopping by for an informal inspection and brief victory lap with McVoy. “It’s so good to see the building filled with art,” he says. Both men beam.

Says McVoy of their firms’ relationship: “We did a lot of calling around. It was important to choose an associate firm with integrity, that was positive, fostered camaraderie and one that supported the mission of raising the level of contemporary architecture in Richmond.”

Specifically, McVoy says, Steven Holl wanted the building to possess a sense of verticality from the first through the third floors, to be essentially seamless with no unnecessary barriers, walls or doors. He says this was extremely challenging in light of building codes. “BCWH was successful in making that happen.”


4 p.m.

Stephanie Smith, the chief curator, is in a second-floor gallery. She wears protective art-handler gloves while she shows off the intimate environments that are hidden subversively in jewelry boxes by Curtis Talwst Santiago.



4:30 p.m.

Suddenly, as McVoy prepares to depart for the airport and his flight back to New York, he’s startled to recognize three faces peering through the large windows along Belvidere Street. They belong to Kim Thrower, Michael Stevenson and their daughter, Rae Stevenson. Thrower and Michael Stevenson, who both practice architecture in Raleigh, were at Columbia studying architecture when McVoy was a student there. Today they’re making an inspection junket to VCU as Rae considers college options.

“It’s beautifully sculpted, it’s a wonderful way to experience art,” says Michael Stevenson of Richmond’s instant new landmark that was seven years in the making, as the friends conclude their impromptu tour by the pool.

“Seven years in-the-making is not that long for a major cultural building,” McVoy says. S


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