In addition to a shared historical moment, the Institute of Contemporary Art—which rose to infamy as the battleground for the culture wars of the 1990s—and Visual AIDS, a pioneering nonprofit dedicated to promoting AIDS awareness through contemporary art, now have something else in common: Amy Sadao. After 10 years as executive director at the New York-based nonprofit, Sadao is bringing her energy, advocacy and vision to Philadelphia as the newly appointed Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director of the ICA. Eleven days into her new role, PW spoke with Sadao about why it makes sense that her tenure start on the eve of the ICA’s 50th anniversary.
Were you familiar with Philadelphia before you signed up for the Directorship at ICA?
Two and a half years ago, I started dating a poet and arts writer, Thomas Devaney, visiting professor at Haverford College. We were coming back and forth between Brooklyn and Philadelphia, so I recused myself from my weekend obligations in the New York art world to come to Philadelphia and just be immersed in the world of poetry, dance, music, and art. I was getting to know Tom’s circle of people and I certainly knew Vox Populi already (a number of my colleagues were presenting there). Vox is a long standing collective and it’s a different model than what you see in New York. There’s a rotating roster and they invite outside curators in. It’s fantastic. I love Vox and First Fridays. So Tom and I would spend a lot of time doing that. But since Tom comes from the writer’s community I’ve met a lot of Philadelphia poets, been to the places they do readings, know the places they teach writing. (You get cued in to what’s happening when your friends are engaged in the arts). So here I was coming to Philadelphia on the weekends to be with the man I was dating and we’d want to just hang out but have to balance that with all the other stuff there was to do. A year ago, we bought a place together, which for me, meant that I bought a weekend home in a city! But I’m a city person, so it was fantastic. I’m living in that place full-time now.
So we don’t have to win you over?
No way, it was a very easy move. I love the openness of Philadelphians and the mix. You really get crossover at events: artists attend readings, and theater people come to art shows. I love this city.
Not everyone realizes that the ICA is part of the University of Pennsylvania. How do you see the ICA’s relationship with Penn?
I am personally thrilled, and one of the reasons I came here was because the Institute of Contemporary Art is the “Institute of Contemporary art at the University of Pennsylvania.” Initially, I wanted to be around artists, so I went to an art school. Then I realized that I wanted the humanities involved and some writing. (But I do not regret for a moment my training as a visual artist). And then I wanted to be around intellectuals, so I went to a PhD program with a BFA. I felt like I was the only person at University of California Berkeley in a PhD program with a BFA. I have a real love of educational institutions, and in America in particular, in our current America, educational institutions are a site of intellectual inquiry. Many of the people who end up working at them are our public intellectuals, because where else could they be supported? Could they work at a think tank? No. Because we don’t support our intellectuals and creative workers the way other countries do. That’s another issue. But I do think that’s an issue I’m concerned about and the opportunity to direct this, to lead this great organization in this great campus in this great city is a civic duty.
The Penn compact is also about how are going to be good citizens and train and educate good citizens. I mean, this is the oldest university in the whole country, right? I was just looking at a book about Penn and it starts with this beautiful quote from Ben Franklin about the arts being “long.” It’s out of his early formulations of what an educational institution should be. It’s beautiful. I want it framed here at the ICA. For me, our role is to present the best contemporary art, create space for dialog around that, engage the artists and the ideas that are in the artworks with great integrity (which I think we have), and engage the artists themselves and the viewer.
I see being at the University of Pennsylvania as one of the reasons I came here. They’re bringing young artists to study at the institution. It’s the way the California schools—at least when I was coming out of undergraduate school—were doing it. It’s like, “Wow, they’re really building a program here.” Penn is going to do that with the arts. I mean, just look at the MFA show they did last year. I think you’re going to see some really extraordinary young artists seeking out the opportunity to study art in a larger context because Penn has the best libraries, the best performing arts venues. It’s a better life! I mean do you want to live in Bushwick and commute to Hunter to fight for studio space? Philadelphia a livable city, it’s a beautiful city. It’s a destination.
These are things that I see happening on the Penn campus. I came here to be a part of an educational institution and to run a museum at an educational institution that has alums who are huge advocates of contemporary art and who want to see their alma mater remain and become the shining jewel of the Philadelphia art scene. I am excited about going deeper and further afield than one would expect. What are the links between the sciences, the professional schools? There are three graduate students currently on the staff of ICA getting their non-profit management degrees at Penn and Drexel. What a great place to be!
Education was an essential component of the mission at Visual Aids. However, the Education Department at the ICA was disbanded a few years ago. How do you feel about this shift away from an “Education Department” as such, at the ICA?
I think the very, very bold move on behalf of the curatorial team here and the leadership at this institution was eliminating the “Education Department” and reshaping the institution to have a program curator and a publications/associate curator, in addition to an assistant and senior curator. This was not a flippant idea made to follow some trend or something. It was simply because we are already in an educational institution and, by rights, our immediate audience members are Penn students and the Penn community, so everything we do—by its very nature—is educational. It’s extraordinary to go to an intimate Excursus program organized by Program Curator Alex Klein, where you talk to the rare books librarian from Penn about letters on display from the archive and then go to the next event and have 400 people dancing on the terrace. I mean, these are the spiraling multiplicities, the very different levels of engagement we need to be working at: I mean, literally, you could come to an Excursus and be one of four people and I think that the dialog that you’re going to have there, with the artist and with each other, is a completely different experience from a docent led museum tour with 30 people that you don’t know.
So the intimacy is something to be valued and not an indicator to you that one of your goals should be to widen the audience or get more people in the door?
I think that’s a misunderstanding about really addressing the different needs of different audiences and “diversifying” audiences. You’re trying to make this available and engaging to so many people at different levels. It’s about the depth of our experience with art and artists and cultural institutions. I want Penn students and beyond to know that there’s Wi-Fi here and clean bathrooms, that we’re easy to get to, and that people know that it’s free here at the ICA and that they should come on over. And if they want to bring their classes, all they have to do is give us a call. You want to bring a large group of people, you want to bring your family reunion or your playgroup? Great! Just talk to the super, excellent, best, amazing Visitor Services coordinator, William Hidalgo. Just give us a call. Give us an opportunity to be your museum.
The ICA’s 50th anniversary coming up. What excites you most about the history and future initiatives of the ICA?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. Agnes Martin is a rich and deep experience and I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with her work in different settings. I know that she had an early show here and knowing that she was supported by Philadelphia and Philadelphia collectors early on is enormous for me. She’s very important to me. I’m very proud to be leading an institution with that sort of history. I look at my mentors and that group of folks who were engaged in the Culture Wars, sparked by the Robert Mapplethorpe show in 1989 at the ICA, which is taught over and over again. For me that’s really historic and important. The Culture Wars is a time in American art history and in the history of artists that I think you’re going to see a lot more people responding to because it totally changed the nature of artist-run spaces. It polarized and forced into positions groups of people who hadn’t worked together before. The arts communities’ response there was not dissimilar to the communities’ response to AIDS, to the American wars, to Occupy. I get really excited thinking about the work that’s going to come out in response to our recent history and the archive of this institution, which was working always at the forefront, and doing that thoughtfully.
What do you bring to ICA?
It’s fantastic to be here as Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People exhibition is opening. I personally adore people and I feel like I have a great capacity to meet a lot of people (and remember most of their names!). That’s what I like to do. I have joy in people and I derive joy from people. But probably a more significant parallel between Deller’s exhibition and what I bring to the ICA as a hallmark of my tenure here is openness. Jeremy’s work really has that openness. If you look at my track record as executive director of Visual Aids, if you speak to people who knew me in New York, or people who know me here in Philadelphia, I think they’ll agree that a sense of openness pervades my work and my career and I think that that is a fine match for the individual goals of the staff and the collective goals of the institution.