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 long-present social issues. However, because those issues have been cast in a new light over the past months, the experience of seeing the art again, presented in exactly the same way, felt flat. The sculptures were literally and figuratively dusty. And if the goal of reopening with the same work was to prompt reflection on how much the world has changed in the past months, then the lack of a curatorial statement to that effect was surprising.

To fault the curatorial muteness on the level of art criticism felt petty. I had to learn more: what had the ICA been doing during lockdown, and what was involved with reopening?

Quite a lot, in fact, on both fronts.

Early in the lockdown, the museum announced that the 2020 season of the Watershed — a large warehouse in East Boston, recently converted to a satellite gallery of the ICA — would be canceled. In April, however, the building reopened its doors, not as an art space, but as something more similar to its original use.

In partnership with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and the museum’s catering partner, The Catered Affair, the ICA has been using the building as a food distribution site. An ad-hoc supply chain brings much-needed fresh produce directly to families in East Boston, the neighborhood that has experienced Boston’s highest rates of COVID-19. Recipients of the donated meals are low-income, many of them service workers (therefore many of them recently unemployed), and many of them immigrants without access to government support; in short, these are the families who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, financially and health-wise. Led by the museum’s director of public engagement, Kelly Gifford, and the education director, Monica Garza, the ICA team has worked quickly and creatively to tap and expand its donor base, re-use its physical assets, re-configure its curatorial plan, and galvanize new partnerships, to do the vital work of caring for our community during a traumatic time.

Workers and volunteers distributed food boxes from the ICA Watershed. Courtesy of the ICA Boston, via The Boston Globe.

And the museum has also cared for the community at the center of the ICA: its staff and visitors. Like all museums, the ICA faces seemingly insurmountable financial challenges — according to a survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums, one third of museums face a ‘significant risk’ of closing permanently during lockdown or as a part of coronavirus’ repercussions. Despite that specter, the ICA has made a remarkable financial commitment to keep its staff throughout the closure. And the four months without visitors were not idle ones — like all institutions anticipating the transition to a post-COVID reality, the museum developed new protocols for safe visiting, including limited and timed tickets, barriers and routing and more, to keep staff and guests safe.

What at first appeared to be a stale reopening with old art and new Purell dispensers, was, in fact, a rich, multivalent engagement with the challenges and opportunities of being a cultural institution during a time when our society is most imperiled.

The ICA has proven that every institution has an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to imagine and enact programs like these — to do the work of radical care, including our political institutions.

This is a second, equally important issue at stake where the arts intersect with reopening. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that conventional economic, political, and social logics are fundamentally unjust. Boston itself is an example of that past and present violence. The trauma that East Boston’s residents are facing today is a symptom of a much older, much deeper, societal ailment. Healing this trauma is also a matter of radical care, on a systemic level: caring for the integrity of our political, economic and social reality.

During the past months, powerful energy for exposing the structural faults in race relations, the economy, and pandemic response has surfaced and been amplified around the country. The energy is not new, but it is newly present. It is coming to the forefront of discourse, and giving voice to those who have not had one before.

In short, the coronavirus has pushed us to acknowledge that we find ourselves facing a moment of reckoning, as a society. If racism is indeed a public health crisis, as Boston’s mayor Martin Walsh has stated, and if the pandemic is disproportionately affecting those who have been systematically disadvantaged, as countless analyses are showing, then we must be willing to face fundamental faults, name them, and address each other with empathy. With that attitude, this moment of reopening can also be a moment for reimagining a better social infrastructure, and building it together. Now is a time when political leaders can embrace a newly humble role in addressing the present, and an imaginative, collaborative role in shaping the future.

How can we go about understanding the present and imagining possible futures? Well, the arts.

Art has historically performed a vital function in society; holding up a mirror, giving a voice to marginalized communities, and introducing alternative realities. And there are artists, especially here in Boston, who have been creating through this moment, doing the courageous work of critique and the formative work of imagination. Contemporary art can be a motive force in both the diagnosis and the healing processes that we must go through today, and our institutions — political and cultural — should be a platform to put that momentum into action.

When I walked out of the ICA, I immediately found myself wondering what I would have seen in its galleries if artists were invited in to create work while the doors were closed. But I was fundamentally missing the point. More importantly, I am now wondering what I would see on our streets, in our schools, or in our municipal budgets if artists — particularly those engaging the real structural faults in our politics, social structure, economics — had a voice in the broader process of post-coronavirus systemic restructuring?

There is precedent for this political attitude: the arts were a central component of the Roosevelt administration’s response to our country’s Great Depression. The 1933 Public Works of Art Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration, focused on funding for artists and arts institutions — yes, intended as a driver of economic growth, but far more importantly, as a platform for hyper-local social critique and cultural imagination. The program led to hundreds of murals and community art spaces across the country, leaving a rich cultural legacy and democratizing art. We owe entire art historical movements to that political humility and willingness to seriously value the arts.

The New Deal was a model for “decentralized government art patronage, connecting artists to the social environment,” according to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Today, Obrist’s energies are focused on taking up that history to make a case for what he calls the new New Deal.

“We need to think about a new era of social imagination… If you think about the idea of a museum as a laboratory, the most important thing is that we allow artists to change institutions.”

This is what “reopening” could mean: purposive, collective rebuilding. Instead, the political focus seems to be on bars and Class A office spaces: what our city, state, and federal politicians — enamored of the high-tech innovation economy — have consistently waved as a magic wand for economic development over the past decade (while largely ignoring the compelling economics of the local cultural sector).

Reopening museums is one step in a long process, and an important one. But reopening can, and must, mean more than dusting off the same politics, economics, and social configurations we had before. We are in the midst of a unique crisis, but also an opportunity. The ICA humbly demonstrated the potential for large institutions to do the work of radical care, by quickly and creatively reconfiguring its financial, physical and curatorial foundations. It is incumbent upon our political leaders to do the same foundational retooling, and turn to the arts as a laboratory for social critique and imagination during this pivotal moment.

The past months have shown that artists are diagnosing the illnesses in our society and producing work that imagines new possibilities. Institutions like the ICA have proven capable of responding quickly, sensitively, and creatively to emerging crises. Now the ball is in our leaders’ court. Are they willing to listen to the arts for the diagnostics and healing they offer? Can institutions like the ICA become a crucible for that work?

I’d like to thank Kathleen Kennedy, Marjorie Pritchard, Kate Mytty, Matt Shafer, Kim Smith, Mike Maizels, and Joshua Croke for discussing these ideas with me and reading early drafts of the piece.