For a time, the Santa Monica Museum of Art was an institution without a home. Last year it lost its building at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, and its future was uncertain. But now it is busy rebuilding. In May it announced a new location — on East 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles — and a new name: the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA).
Now the museum moves forward with more news: It has announced the appointment of Hammer Museum assistant curator Jamillah James as its curator. James joins the ICA after two years at the Hammer, where she worked on project installations and major exhibitions, and helped oversee a range of programming at Art + Practice, the arts space the Hammer runs in collaboration with artist Mark Bradford in Leimert Park.
Elsa Longhauser, the executive director of ICA LA says she has followed James’ work for the last couple of years — from the project show she organized of the painted collages of Njideka Akunyili Crosby at the Hammer to the group exhibition “A Shape That Stands Up” at Art + Practice — and has been impressed with what’s she has seen.
“Seeing the work that she was doing and talking to people with whom she had worked made me think she would be perfect for ICA LA,” she says. “She’s a speaker and a critic and a writer in addition to being a curator. I think Jamillah, with her sensibility and her experience and her knowledge of the global and local art world, will add a dimension that is new and exciting and expansive.”
Prior to her tenure at the Hammer, James was a curatorial fellow at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City, where she worked on a number of exhibitions, including a critically acclaimed survey of works by the California conceptualist Charles Gaines (a show that later traveled to the Hammer, with additional pieces shown at Art + Practice).
James has likewise been an admirer of what the three-decade-old Santa Monica institution has achieved over its existence.
“They have this radical experimental history,” she says. “They’ve championed artists I’ve been committed to in my own work, like William Pope.L and Mickalene Thomas.”
And the nimble quality of the kunsthalle model — that is, the non-collecting institution — is an environment she is looking forward to working in. This, she says, will provide her the ability to showcase a dynamic mix of Los Angeles and international artists in more reactive ways.
“[The museum’s] identity isn’t tethered to a collection,” she says. “It gives us a lot more flexibility. This means there will be a lot of different artists we can engage with. It won’t be the five- to seven-year timeline that most museums have.”
The ICA does face the task of having to distinguish itself from the myriad contemporary art organizations now operating in art-clogged downtown Los Angeles — including the under-construction Main Museum, a non-collecting institution that will open its principal exhibition spaces in 2018. But Longhauser says she isn’t worried about overlap.
“You have a lot of very large-scale organizations there — with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Broad and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel,” she explains. “We are very human-scale. We’re about new ideas. We’re about community relationships and social action. So I think we are defined quite differently from other organizations.”
The ICA LA is scheduled to open in spring 2017.
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