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Inside the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond a week before it opens

Inside the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond a week before it opens

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You’ve seen it rise at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets, the shiny zinc-clad modern marvel that will house the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A piece of public art itself, the building billed as the biggest thing to happen to the Richmond art scene in years has slowly been taking shape at the busy intersection since 2014.

Now it’s almost time to go inside.

The ICA is set to open to the public April 21. The building has been buzzing all week with preparations for the grand opening.

A pink neon sign that says “You belong here” was illuminated on the side of the building facing Broad Street earlier this week.

“The ICA has been a labor of love for more than a decade,” interim director Joe Seipel said at a media preview on Thursday. “Richmond is ready and the excitement for the ICA is palpable.”

The $41 million museum has already been named one of the most anticipated buildings of 2018 by Architectural Digest.

When you walk inside, you step into a soaring atrium with lofty ceilings, transparent glass walls, curved edges and a sweeping grand staircase. It is an opening of epic proportions.

Which is fitting for a building that’s as much a work of art as the art it will house. Even the door handles look artistic: They’re sculpted brass in ampersand shapes.

Silver-haired, wearing a black shirt, black jacket and a white tie, architect Steven Holl flew in from New York to talk about the building.

“I wanted to make door handles like no one has ever seen before,” Holl said. “They feel good on the hand and will get better over time. The details are important.”

He described the challenge of creating an art museum with two fronts — one that opens to the city and another that opens to the university.

He said he was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, and his short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

The main lobby, or forum, is treated with double-insulated glass, to diffuse the noise of Broad Street. The other entrance is the garden side, which he called the “thinking field.” It has tables, a reflecting pool and landscaping, and it opens to the university.

Holl spoke about how the building “forks in time.”

The museum is one organism: its spine is the spiral staircase, with the galleries shooting off the center.

As a noncollecting museum, the building will be the only permanent work of art there.

The galleries flow into one another. Some have huge, open entryways. Others have automatic sliding glass doors.

The ICA’s building and galleries feel circular, evocative of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but completely their own experience.

The opening exhibition, “Declaration,” features more than 30 artists and roughly 70 artworks. Over a third of the pieces will be making their debut at the ICA.

Stephanie Smith, the chief curator, said she and ICA inaugural director Lisa Freiman — who stepped down earlier this year — decided to reshape the opening exhibit shortly after the presidential election of 2016.

She said she hoped the art would “catalyze change ... and speak to important but often difficult topics that are relevant here as well as in the nation.”

The themes in “Declaration” shift from gallery to gallery.

The first floor is focused on the body and is an intense experience with Paul Rucker’s imposing and unforgettable KKK robes in “Storm in the Time of Shelter.”

The second floor deals with themes of voice: of labyrinths and racial injustice, pipeline protests and police brutality.

And the third floor moves into the airy space of connection with Lee Mingwei’s interactive “The Mending Project,” made of spools of thread and clothing donated by ICA visitors that form an ever-evolving constellation of interactivity.

Chris McVoy, an architect with Steven Holl Architects, described the top gallery as a space of “torquing geometry.”

“You arrive at the top of the building, the height and proportion, there is a sense of calm and light,” he said. “We never made a space like this before.”

The auditorium has 240 cherrywood seats and looks like something out of New York or Los Angeles.

“This is my favorite auditorium that I’ve ever done,” Holl said. “This one is the best with the best acoustics.”

The ICA also has a café from Ellwood Thompson’s where visitors can grab a sandwich or a salad, a cup of coffee, or beer and wine.

Both Holl and VCU President Michael Rao paid tribute to Bev Reynolds as a catalyst for the creation of the ICA. A major proponent of the arts in Richmond and the owner of Reynolds Gallery, she died in 2014 but her vision lives on in the ICA.

Seipel said the idea for the ICA came 15 years ago when the Anderson Gallery at VCU wasn’t accessible to people with disabilities. Organizers discussed adding an elevator that would go up the side of the building, but it would have cost half a million dollars.

Reynolds was among those who helped push for a new building that would eventually become the ICA.

“Now we have a $41 million building. It’s phenomenal. I literally got goose bumps when I came in here,” Seipel said.

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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