Arts Institutions in a New Era of Social Imagination

Matthew Claudel
8 min readAug 31, 2020
Carolina Caycedo: Cosmotarrayas. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. 2020. Photo by Matthew Claudel.

Over the past weeks, art museums have been opening their doors to an entirely changed world. For the first weekend at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), one hundred tickets were available per hour, and one of them was mine.

Visiting a museum was a welcome return to a kind of normalcy for me — I suspect it was for many of the 99 others who I shared the galleries with that weekend.

But I also suspect that my experience was different from theirs, because I had been one of the final visitors to the ICA before its doors were closed in March.

When I returned, I was shocked to find that everything was exactly as it had been months ago. A small room of “contemporary art after Kusama”; Tschabalala Self’s exploration of the Black body in sewn collages; Sterling Ruby’s sprawling American flag plush doll. Carolina Caycedo’s “Cosmotarrayas,” — hand-woven nets cradling culturally potent objects, pictured above — swayed gently in the still air of the gallery, as if the past several months had never happened.

We have all aged a lifetime — individually and collectively — since January, and when I walked through the doors, I realized that I had come to the museum looking for more than an aesthetic experience and a return to normalcy. I had been looking for a new orientation; looking for resources to help me process the terror and languor of lockdown, the social movements ripping through the tangle of contemporary politics. Art gives its viewers these kinds of resources, to be more self-aware and acknowledge our fundamental interconnectedness, to be more empathetic, especially in troubled times. Resources to be more human.

The ICA has a history of orchestrating challenging exhibitions that engage complex social issues and provide such resources. It is not alone: during the past few years, arts institutions around the country have been reckoning with racial injustice in the history and the present of the art world and society at large. There has been a decisive curatorial emphasis on the work of artists speaking the truth of marginalized communities. The problem hasn’t been solved, but it has become part of a conversation.

As a part of that recent past, much of the art currently on view at the ICA addresses…

Matthew Claudel

Writer, designer, researcher; co-founder of MITdesignX