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ICA LA moves into Los Angeles' downtown Arts District

Former Santa Monica museum relaunches in renovated clothing factory

Martín Ramírez’s Untitled (Horse and Red Rider), in the inaugural exhibition The Estate of Martín Ramírez / Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery and ICA LA

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), is homeless no more. On 9 September, the former Santa Monica Museum of Art reopens in a renovated clothing factory in the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles. The 12,700 sq. ft building, which has been retrofitted by Kulapat Yantrasast, the founder of wHY Architecture, includes around 7,000 sq. ft of exhibition space. The budget is undisclosed.

“Moving downtown gives us the opportunity to rethink our programming,” says Elsa Longhauser, the institute’s director. “We’re in a new, very diverse community that’s quite different from Santa Monica.” The Arts District borders Boyle Heights, a largely Latino neighbourhood that has become ground zero in a wave of anti-gentrification demonstrations. In March, one non-profit gallery in the area, Pssst, closed after becoming the repeated target of protesters.

“The primary thing we’d like to achieve as an institution is to make this feel like a welcoming space for a public that might otherwise feel intimidated,” says the museum’s curator, Jamillah James. To this end, ICA LA’s inaugural exhibition of the Mexican outsider artist Martín Ramírez will be accompanied by bilingual guided tours and wall labels, in English and Spanish, and live performances by a band of Latin-American day labourers. The museum’s education director is also helping members of the Boyle Heights community to find paid jobs in the art industry. “It’s a way to demystify what we do,” Longhauser says.

The building’s architecture also speaks to that ambition. “One thing we turned into an advantage was that the building only has one entrance,” Yantrasast says, noting that it encourages transparency and social engagement. “When people come in, the first thing they will see are more people.” What Longhauser calls the “inner workings” of the museum—education workshops, a book shop and a boardroom—are also near the front.

As a non-collecting institution, ICA LA is a rarity in the US museums landscape. “We’re not contained by layers of bureaucracy,” Longhauser says. “We’re able to be much more agile and spontaneous.” Yet the museum has also grown considerably since it left Santa Monica. It is 95% of the way through a $5m capital campaign and has added four new staff positions in the past year, with plans to expand the team further.

Ahead of the grand opening, the focus is on the museum’s core goals. “We are committed to a critique of the familiar and empathy with the different,” Longhauser says. “That’s a poignant mission with a lot of important commitments.”

Martín Ramírez’s Untitled (Train and Tunnel) (around 1960-63) The Estate of Martín Ramírez; courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery and ICA LA; photo by Elon Schoenholz

Inside view of an outsider’s work

For Pacific Standard Time, the Getty Trust-backed exhibitions initiative taking place across Los Angeles, ICA LA will host Martín Ramírez: His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation (9 September-31 December 2018). The show includes around 50 works by Ramírez, a Mexican migrant labourer who spent much of his life in Californian psychiatric hospitals after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Its curator, the museum’s director Elsa Longhauser, who organised a celebrated 1985 survey of his work in Philadelphia, says conservation has generated fresh insights. “Some of the stories about Ramírez are going to have to be reconsidered,” Longhauser says. Analysis of his previously unseen 17ft-long scroll, for example, reveals no trace of the mashed potatoes or chewed bread said to bind his drawings.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 293 September 2017