Curatorial Chat | Eva Respini on rethinking the promise of a ‘contemporary’ collection

Ica Firstlight Installation 1078 (JPG)
Installation view, First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2016-17. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography.

Ica Firstlight Installation 1052 (JPG)
Installation view, First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2016-17. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography.

Ica Firstlight Installation 1021 (JPG)
Installation view, First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2016-17. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography.


Eva Respini began as the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) in March 2015. Since then, she has been mounting an ambitious program of temporary exhibitions alongside installations drawn from the ICA’s growing permanent collection. Respini’s current exhibition, First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA, celebrates the museum’s tenth year of acquisition activity following its shift from a kunsthalle model to a collecting institution in 2006. In order to tell multiple stories through the varied strengths within the ICA’s holdings, Respini chose to section First Light into a series of independent yet interrelated chapters. In doing so, the exhibition offers alternatives to a singular canonic narrative through a succession of moments fraught with pertinent social, political, and emotional charge.

In 2014, while a curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Respini participated in the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s core fellowship. During her completion of the program’s signature curriculum, Respini received mentorship from Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago during a weeklong residency and introduced a local New York City college student to curatorial practice through her Diversity Mentoring Initiative.

Respini met with CCL at the ICA to discuss the role of a collection for a contemporary institution, the revision of a limited art historical canon, and the transition into her current position of greater leadership following her time in the CCL fellowship.

How would you characterize the ICA’s collection and institutional priorities?

The ICA has this great history in that we’ve only been a collecting institution for ten years since 2006, but we’re actually 80 years old; we’re one of the oldest and longest running spaces dedicated to contemporary art. When I came here I had to contend with what it means to be a collecting institution when, in essence, a collection is about looking back, creating permanency, and generating a context that eventually will be historical in light of a forward-thinking exhibition program. What we’ve done in the past ten years and with the current exhibition First Light is to really own our history in the collection. A lot of the work that we collect feels very responsive to the urgent issues of our time, including identity, social and racial injustice, and feminism and the visibility of women. This is something that we’ve championed in our exhibition program since the very beginning, for instance showing Guernica in 1940 and Robert Mapplethorpe in 1990. If you look at our collection, it actually mirrors this history and now we’re formalizing some of these threads that we see.

My challenge in coming to the ICA has been to expand the collection beyond this institutional history and to collect works by artists that haven’t been part of the conversation. One of the two things we did upon my arrival was to establish an acquisition fund. We have early seeding from the great generosity of donors who give us their artworks, but now we can also have a more curatorially driven acquisition program. We’re able to go out and purchase works that people don’t buy for their homes in order to go beyond what’s in the community and what we’ve done in our own history.

The second thing that we did was to establish collecting priorities. Most museums do this, it’s nothing new, but it’s a way to galvanize the little resources we do have and to focus our collective energies. In the year leading up to this ten-year anniversary, we committed to converting promised gifts to full gifts—simple as that. Having made these priorities, which will shift every year as gaps are filled and strengths are built on, really helped the museum to focus and build the collection.

What were your conceptual and curatorial approaches to your current permanent collection exhibition?

The show is actually an exhibition of exhibitions. First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA is the umbrella under which we have organized nine different chapters. Especially coming from a place like MoMA where one can tell the history of art using the collection, at the ICA we can’t tell a story or the story—our collection is just too small at this time. But we can tell several smaller stories and follow different threads. We have certain depths: art by women, artists using craft, photography, and sculpture. This exhibition started around the recognition that if we can’t tell one monolithic history of art, what other stories can we tell?

The nine chapters are interrelated and each chapter has its own title, organizing principle, and curator. I wanted this exhibition to be collaborative with all of the curators in the department, including the curatorial assistants, since building a collection is a collective act. Recently we’ve seen a lot of resistance to the monolithic story in museums and a desire to not just tell a Western European Northern American narrative of art of the last thirty years, but to define a plurality of voices and artistic traditions. Through the small thematics within First Light, we’re showing that this is no longer how contemporary art museums talk about art of the last thirty years.

Can you describe your transition from your role at MoMA to your current chief curatorship at the ICA?

It’s been a little more than a year and a half. It’s tough. It was actually two transitions: one from being in the middle of the pack to leading the charge of a department, the other from being in a very large, hierarchical museum to a much smaller, more nimble institution. That took some getting used to. There were moments where it was fantastic, but I also came to realize that with structure and hierarchy comes support. So for me the transition wasn’t just getting used to managing, having a department, and setting a vision, but also realizing what our capacity is here. You can come in and have big ideas, but it took me a while to realize our true capacity. And I would rather do fewer things and do them really well than do many things and do them okay. I think I’m still learning about that.

You completed the CCL program in 2014. In what ways did your experiences in the fellowship impact your move to the ICA?

One part of me wishes that I could have done CCL when I actually got this job rather than before, since a lot of the things that I was absorbing pertained to my job at the time at MoMA. Now I find myself thinking, “Oh, I should have maybe paid more attention to that!” So I’ve actually gone back to the materials, which has been really fun to return with fresh eyes, different needs, and new questions. What surprised me is how much I still internalized a lot of those things. When I’m sitting here in my office and I think “How do I tackle this?” I actually do know it because I absorbed the lessons nevertheless.

The other thing that has really stuck with me is the cohort and the greater CCL network. My cohort is a sounding board; they’re people I can just call up with questions and that has been a blessing to have colleagues outside of my own immediate circle.

Are there any standout moments from your time in CCL?

There was a session with Professor Paul Ingram where you had to map out and understand the power of your network. When I did the mapping, my network was extremely small and it wasn’t diverse enough. I remember that being a really powerful realization that as a curator you can do your work, hopefully do good shows, and generate important scholarship, but your work as a chief curator is your reputation as well as who you can call on—what artists, collectors, donors, other curators, or other museum directors can you call on to bring into your sphere? I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is actually a huge part of the transition into a position of greater leadership.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’d like to think that I’m very transparent and collaborative in all of the work that I do. I think it has to do partly with my generation, but also how I came to curatorial work. I was an assistant on the first major show that I did, but I had the benefit of working with a more seasoned curator who brought me on, trusted me, and eventually made me a co-curator on the project. I always remember that.

Museums are almost like apprenticeships in that you can have a great graduate degree, but you still start at the bottom with administrative work and work your way up. In thinking about the department here and managing people, I like to be collaborative and transparent. With First Light, that was one goal: that every curator had the chance to organize a chapter involving all the staff from the registrar to the preparators, because it’s our collection. This is ours to take care of and preserve for future generations. All of our work in organizing that umbrella show was a very collaborative experience and I would say that’s typical of my management style.

What’s on the horizon for you?

The great thing about the ICA is that you get to do a lot of shows, which is also the challenging thing. The project that I’m really focused on is an exhibition for 2018 called Art in the Age of the Internet. It’s a show that I very specifically cited in Boston and there has yet to be an exhibition of this scale about the Internet, visual art, and our contemporary moment. It’s an opportunity for local partnerships, new scholarship with a lot of new voices in the mix, and to show very prescient figures with contemporary artists—from Nam June Paik to Ryan Trecartin. That exhibition to me is exciting because it feels like a Boston-specific project that I’ve really wanted to do here.