On her 11th day on the job, the new director of the Institute of Contemporary Art sat down with Street to talk art, music and everything contemporary.
Street: Could you tell us about your undergrad at Cooper Union?
Amy Sadao: The fine arts major is very generalist — it’s not art history, or, at least not when I was there, curatorial studies. In terms of medium and genre, there’s not a photography department, there’s not a sculpture department — you can kind of cross the board once you get in beyond your foundation year. So we were practicing performance art inside the sculpture studio; I studied large–scale drawing and installation, and took a course on contemporary art issues, which I was very involved with.
Street: What drew you away from the studio and toward the curatorial field?
AS: I actually stopped making work my junior and senior year at Cooper — I still did, for my classes, as assignments, but I was coming to an understanding of myself as an arts producer and curator, a liaison and writer, in a different way than an artist with a studio practice. I was just not interested in sitting alone in my studio. I wanted to talk to other artists, hear what they were doing, help install work. I had an extraordinarily flexible group of professors and an institution that supported me not following the rules in a certain way, but it was really helpful to have been trained as a fine artist.
Street: Did you have any particular sources of inspiration during undergrad?
AS: Some of the mentors I had, the professors I had, have become lifelong mentors. I took a public art class that was co–taught by Susanna Leval Torruella, who now works at El Museo del Barrio. It was a team taught with Jenny Dixon, who is now director at the Noguchi Museum. Both of those extraordinary women have been examples of what a career in the arts is, and what it means to be an advocate for artists and art and they continue to be friends and mentors.
Street: Could you tell us about your time at UC Berkeley?
AS: I went to UC Berkeley and did a Ph.D. program in comparative ethnic studies to explore parallels between curatorial practice and the field of race and ethnicity, with a cultural studies emphasis. So I worked for the center with a designated emphasis on women, gender and sexuality, and I worked very closely with my mentor there, Elaine Kim — one of the real important figures in Asian–American literature. She’s worked quite a bit in Asian–American art and film, and was an extraordinary mentor.
Street: What brought you to the ICA? What did you see in it as an institution and as a gallery space?
AS: I have been a longtime fan of the ICA. During my time in New York, I followed their program online, and would get their catalogs and publications and pore over them. I’ve had my eye on the ICA since my eyes were open. Over the last two years, I’ve been coming back and forth to Philadelphia because my partner is in Philadelphia. His name is Thomas Devaney, and he has an interesting story himself — he used to work at Penn and still teaches here in the masters program. He’s a poet and arts writer, and teaches at Haverford.
Fifteen years ago it was a dream to think I’d work at the ICA, much less lead the ICA. Two years ago, it became a much more realizable dream. There was only one job I wanted in Philadelphia and that was director of the ICA — you can ask people who know me. Now they ask “did you read that book ‘The Secret’ or something?” It was stated intentionally.
And I love the idea of working at an institution like Penn. I’m super excited about having a library card. I was thrilled by the possibility of leading a museum that I have been following for decades, and that the museum is tied to an educational institution of the caliber, diversity and uniqueness that Penn has.
Street: After ten years as executive director of Visual AIDS, do you see ICA exhibitions moving in a more sociopolitical direction? Tell us a little bit about your vision.
AS: Absolutely, my time at Visual AIDS will influence my work here. The mission at Visual AIDS was to provoke dialogue about the pandemic through contemporary arts programming, and this is a parallel of something I’m interested in doing at the ICA. I very much like working in partnership, both with artists and arts writers and historians, but also with communities that exceed an imagined arts–going population.
Museums dramatize ideas, and understanding contemporary art, understanding contemporary ideas, is an essential part of your education. If you are a law student, a nursing student, a history major, an English major — culture and art intersect with all of your fields. It is not curricular that you have to come to the museum, but it is part of Ben Franklin’s idea about founding this institution that you engage with art.
Street: Is there any place (other than the ICA of course) that you consider a leader in contemporary art exhibition?
AS: Not as good as here! But just travel around Philadelphia — go to Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, Cleveland — you’re looking at a wealth of cultural experiences.
I spent 23 years living in New York, and DIA:Beacon is a very special place to me — I have spent many hours there. Go to see the Agnes Martins in the skylight galleries that exist at DIA:Beacon, go into the history here at Penn, the rare books library, look at the archive of the ICA.
Street: If you had to pick an art movement other than contemporary…
AS: I’m pretty firmly in contemporary. I like an illuminated manuscript, I like a unicorn tapestry. I have stared to attend a lot of opera — I’ve visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music, so I did see a lot of contemporary opera, but I’d never been to Lincoln Center, so I’m looking forward to this year’s season. I bought a lot of tickets, and if I can get away from Philly for the night I’ll go.
Street: What kind of music do you like?
AS: Gamble and Huff soul! My partner, when he was younger, was all–city jazz, and we have a shared love of good music, soul music — you know, Philly soul.
I like Nina Simone, I was just listening to The Flaming Lips this morning. I was in New York during the whole New York scene — put The Strokes on and I’ll be happy, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — you know, having a drink at a bar and “oh look, Karen O came in, no big deal.” I like roots music, Americana; I like music a lot, I have a lot of musician friends, and Philly has a great music scene — and I’m not just talking about Jay–Z at the Parkway.
P.S. Don’t miss Amy’s debut exhibition, “Jeremy Deller: Joy in People,” on view through December 30.
Check out these Amy Sadao–approved contemporary art hot spots…
Arcadia University Art Gallery: For feminism, photography and well–documented performance art, go see the “Martha Wilson: Staging the Self” exhibit.
The Print Center: Edgy Op Art by Philadelphian Edna Andrade. Plus, a great gift shop — who wouldn’t want an artist print?
On the Web:
The Miranda Blog: A look at the ICA’s behind–the–scenes action by staff editor and novelist Rachel Pastan.
The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest: Politics, art, media and theory all rolled into