Interview with ICA Director Erin Hutton '98

Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations.

Erin Hutton ’98 is the Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at MECA. In this interview, she reflects on the rich legacy of the ICA and her vision going forward.

Tell us a little bit about the background and legacy of the ICA.

Jennifer Gross was the first director of the ICA when it opened in the Porteous Building back in 1997. The vision at the time was to be a premier art space focused specifically on contemporary art, as there was nothing comparable in Portland then. David Ireland was the first artist to be showcased, and his dedication to working with students and interns helped to launch the premiere exhibit. The ICA directors, who also served as curators, have gone on to accomplish incredible things in the art world. Gross is currently the deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Mark Bessire is the director of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, Cindy Foley serves as the executive deputy director for learning and experience at Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Toby Kamps is the director of the Blaff er Art Museum at the University of Houston, Daniel Fuller is the curator at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and Lauren Fensterstock is an assistant professor in MECA’s MFA Program and a practicing artist. All kinds of school groups visit the ICA and use our exhibitions as part of their classroom experiences. We have programs that focus on youths, K-12, and other groups from colleges such as Bates, the University of Southern Maine, and Southern Maine Community College. We’re free and open to the public, so we really provide a service to the community.

What is your current vision?

Having been given this opportunity to honor the vision and legacy of the people who were here before me, I plan to move the ICA forward with a flexible curatorial model that will allow new voices to be included in this progressive, contemporary art space for years to come. My current vision is to really take off with this new model that allows me to be nimble and flexible through identifying and working with guest curators. At any one time, I can be working with nine different curators with nine different visions and levels of expertise. We provide a platform in an amazing facility to honor, support and promote a curator’s vision and what they want to produce. The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving. We don’t overschedule, allowing us to include an exhibit that needs to take place because of a current climate or that addresses a social or global issue. But we can also schedule out two years in advance and give curators and artists valuable time to create work, for which they are grateful. In 2017, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I see the ICA evolving to have a deeper connection to not only the local community but the global community as well, through digital communication. Powerful and poignant exhibits can be seen years later and through different types of media.

The ICA is always changing and continuously evolving.

How do the exhibits and projects impact MECA’s students and the curriculum?

The ICA has never lost sight of the educational component of this space that ties directly to the curriculum and vice versa, with some exhibitions layered into the curriculum itself. In fact, the ICA is used as a laboratory space for many classrooms, including MECA’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program. Our goal is to have every student come to visit every exhibit, get to know the curators, be immersed in contemporary art, get to know the artists, and participate in conversations. Otherwise we could be like any other place. We are unique. Any student interested in working in a gallery or museum can train in the ICA through internships, employment, and hands-on experiences through curatorial practices, learning how an exhibition is put together from beginning to end, which is vital to them. They get real-world experience and deep dive into the exhibition process. MECA’s visiting artist committee is a link between the curriculum and exhibition roster. We work with faculty to produce curated exhibits, and we work with students and alumni who participate in exhibits. We’ve had interactive projects through MECA’s Public Engagement Program and we occasionally showcase student work in our front gallery through a vetted proposal process. In addition, the ICA manages all the exhibitions on campus.

The recent Painting Symposium in conjunction with the American Genre: Contemporary Painting exhibit curated by Michelle Grabner was a huge success, with over 150 people attending. What was that like?

It was an incredible experience to have artists, critics, writers, and a participatory audience hear from leaders in the field. This event would not have been possible without Gail Spaien, professor in MECA’s Painting and MFA Programs and a contributing artist to the American Genre exhibition. She developed this grand idea and had the energy to see it through. Michelle Grabner shared her vision for the exhibition that surrounded us, and we all got to kind of geek out on painting and be immersed in critical theory and all things painting. Our students were able to engage directly with these leaders and everyone left inspired, feeling like they sat through something really meaningful and powerful. We plan to have more symposia and opportunities for the community to engage in critical conversations.

In what sense is the ICA “a constant critique”?

The students who come in here say, “Ahh—that’s art,” because they see it on the walls. But the purpose of the ICA is to create dialogue—for a student, guest, or visitor to view artwork and have a response. It might be positive, negative, emotional, or blasé, but there’s a response. The exhibitions are meant to provoke students to bring these conversations back to their classrooms and strive to have their work on view in a museum or gallery or in experimental ways. We have pop-up events, visiting artists, a lot of things that percolate beyond the walls of the gallery. The future of the ICA lies in the impacts that go well beyond just the physical space.

Are there any particularly memorable stories you would like to share?

My most memorable story—the reason why I was so drawn to working in the ICA—was my experience as a young student working with David Ireland and being an intern on that exhibition, where I received first- hand experience and made a real personal connection with the artist. I will never forget it. Partnering with Daniel Fuller on the student-immersive events where we collaborated on weeklong student engagement projects was also a rich experience. The projects were fun, wacky, and strange, but mostly they were incredible experiences for our students. I continue to look back on those two important experiences, and they fuel the work that I do now.


UPCOMING EXHIBITIONS: 

YOU NEVER KNOW HOW YOU LOOK THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE’S EYES March 8–April 20, 2018. Selected artists create an antagonistic equilibrium in an experimental framework curated by artist Scott Patrick Wiener.

2018 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION May 11–June 8, 2018

More information on upcoming shows can be found here.