Fifty years of risk-taking. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has made vital contributions to modern American art. For half a century, its renegade stands, bold experimentation, and intellectual inquiry have been the staples of its character and purpose.

ALTHOUGH Boston is sometimes considered to be a staid, conservative city, its own maverick museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, has played a critical role in the development of modern art in America. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the ICA is just a few years younger than its progenitor, New York's venerable Museum of Modern Art. The ICA's surprising longevity is itself a testimonial to its passionate commitment to the art of this century.

But will middle age transform the ICA's image from ``adolescent rebel'' to the typically sedate personification of Boston -- a dowdy grande dame with an outmoded and beautiful, but antiquated, hat?

Little in either the ICA's turbulent early years or recent past suggests such dangers of congealment. In fact, the institute's lively history is one of renegade stands and risk-taking experimentation, frequently placing the ICA on the cutting edge of America's involvement with modern art. Yet it's also a history of paradox and contradiction -- all perhaps intrinsic to an institution dedicated to the new in a city rooted in tradition.

Although New York has reigned as the unquestioned center of culture throughout the postwar period, the impetus for the modern museum movement (which crystallized in the 1929 establishment of the Museum of Modern Art) originated not in the avant-garde Apple, but in the intellectual ferment of the Athens of America. Perhaps not surprisingly, that movement sprang from the hallowed but eccentric halls of Harvard University.

In 1928, three Harvard sophomores formed the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. (All three -- Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg, and John Walker -- would go on to distinguish themselves as arts administrators.) Meeting in rented rooms above the Harvard Co-op, the society was supervised by Paul Sachs, assistant director of the Fogg Art Museum. A legendary Harvard teacher, Mr. Sachs was encouraged to pursue his interest in modern art by Alfred Barr Jr., a young professor at Wellesley College.

A dialogue on Modernism ensued between the two academics, stimulated by the ambitious and prescient exhibitions and publications of the Harvard Society. These interconnections culminated when the influential Sachs was invited to serve on a committee to found a museum devoted to modern art in New York. His logical choice to direct the fledgling museum was his prot'eg'e, Mr. Barr. Thus, in 1929, the new Museum of Modern Art appointed Barr as its first director.

This was the first chapter of a fascinatiang dialectic that continued to unfold between the two cities. For if Boston's intellectual energy spawned New York's ``MoMA,'' by the mid-1930s, Boston felt the need for its own museum. Nathaniel Saltonstall, a Boston architect who was chairman of MoMA's membership committee, spearheaded a core group that seceded from the parent institution, forming the Boston Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

Under the dynamic leadership of its first director, James Plaut, the Boston museum soon severed its umbilical ties. Mr. Plaut quickly diverged from MoMA's exclusionary definition of Modernism, which viewed the School of Paris (centered on Picasso and Matisse) as the singular wellspring of Modernism. MoMA director Barr saw the modern movement as culminating in the vanguard modes of Surrealism and abstractionism.

Sensing a gap in Barr's formalist theories, and also seeking to establish an identity separate from MoMA, Plaut developed a digressive analysis of modern art. Under his guidance, the ICA advocated a more pluralistic, inclusive interpretation. Augmenting Barr's deification of Abstraction, Plaut supported the figurative, emotional, distorted, and socially relevant art of German Expressionism. On hindsight, given the widespread influence of this style on today's young painters, Plaut's then-heretical position has been vindicated many times over.

In addition to organizing the critical exhibitions ``Contemporary German Art'' (1939) and ``Forbidden Art of the Third Reich'' (1945), the ICA presented the first United States retrospectives of Oskar Kokoschka (1948), Edvard Munch (1950), and James Ensor (1952). Not only Boston benefited from Plaut's endeavors; many ICA shows traveled around the country, introducing Americans to an expanded view of European art.

In 1948, the ICA once again found itself at the center of controversy -- this time involving not only the Boston and New York art worlds, but also the national media, as well as the larger political arena. As the cold war was heating up, Plaut issued a manifesto announcing a name change; herewith, the Boston Institute of Modern Art would be known as the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The political right seized on Plaut's linguistic alteration, interpreting it as evidence that the ICA was rejecting Modernism, a movement the right equated with ``foreign,'' un-American, and even Communist activity. Fueled by a major article in Life magazine, the tempest in a ``modern vs. contemporary'' teapot became a national cause c'el`ebre, calmed only by a joint manifesto issued by the ICA, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1950, which affirmed the ``continuing validity of what is generally known as modern art,'' and recognizing ``the humanistic value of abstract art.''

Historical highlights, however, can only begin to suggest the ICA's tumultuous development. In its 50-year history, the institute has had no fewer than 11 changes of address (before settling into its current Back Bay quarters); changed its name three times; had nine directors (one, Christopher Cook -- now director of the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass. -- accepted the job for the duration of a year as a ``conceptual art piece''); and been close to bankruptcy more times than anyone cares to remember.

Moreover, the ICA has never had the resources to amass a significant contemporary collection. Had the ICA been acquiring art throughout the Plaut years, it would, no doubt, have one of the nation's most extraordinary holdings in the modern field. But since it has not been a collecting institution, it is technically not a museum at all, but an education institution devoted to expanding public awareness of current art.

Not only has the ICA changed names and addresses, it has also experienced numerous changes of identity, from the exhibition-focused years of Plaut, and later Thomas Messer (who after serving as ICA director from 1957 to 1961, went on to become director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York), to the community outreach, civic-oriented period in the late '60s and early '70s under Andrew Hyde, and back to major thematic exhibitions under Stephen Prokopoff from 1978 to 1982.

But far from resting on its laurels, four years ago the ICA board of trustees hired a highly innovative young director, David Ross, whose previous museum experience included the establishment of the world's first museum department of video -- an indication of his predilection for the more radical media of our time.

Since assuming the directorship in 1982, the energetic Mr. Ross has shaken up the Boston art world with his controversial ``Currents'' program. In lieu of the traditional thematic or one-person museum exhibition format, ``Currents'' presents a smorgasbord of simultaneous mini-exhibits, showcasing a broad range of styles, media, and artistic approaches.

``Currents'' immediately produced an avalanche of negative critical reaction. Some of the less than complimentary responses: A ``hit or miss affair''; ``mediocrity is allowed to flourish''; ``falls catastrophically short of its aim''; ``an exceedingly muddy tidal ebb''; ``an hors d'oeuvre tray of art.'' For a while, it seemed as if ``Currents Crushing'' -- a phenomenon akin to New York's ``Biennial Bashing,'' when critics declare open season on the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition -- was emerging as a new Boston pastime.

Aside from the shock of the new, ``Currents'' initially presented a major logistical problem for art viewers. In its attempt to facilitate immediate access to new art, the ICA hoped to change portions of its installations at a moment's notice, executing, in Ross's words, ``the notion of Currents in its most ideal form.'' This level of spontaneity proved unworkable, as art dealer Barbara Krakow, a supporter of the program, points out: ``It was so confusing in the beginning, because you never knew what was going to be there, or if you'd already seen it, or if you missed something.''

But as ``Currents'' settled into a more predictable schedule of two-month ``waves,'' the public's initial hostility turned to curiosity, acceptance, and finally enthusiasm.

Even the severest critics of ``Currents'' acknowledge that the program's international focus brought a vast array of art to New England that would otherwise go unseen.

Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., the John Moors Cabot curator of American paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, told the Monitor, ``I may be in the minority, but I think `Currents' is wonderful. It's given the ICA a lot of flexibility, and given us a chance to see some terrific art.'' Mr. Stebbins commented that although the public may desire a more coherent explanation of the contemporary art scene, ``the answers provided by museum `experts' almost always turn out -- in a few years -- to not be the answer.''

In fact, Stebbins's commendation was echoed among many of Boston's art professionals. Dealer Stephen Stux noted that ``The ICA's space and financial resources are limited. `Currents' offers an excellent solution to those very tough problems.'' Portia Harcus of the Harcus Gallery expressed guarded praise: ``I feel it's the responsibility of the institution to place its artists in a context. With such a pluralistic exhibitions policy, it's hard to know what the ICA's supporting.'' Still, Ms. Harcus admires the ICA's ``attempt to be on the cutting edge.''

Barbara Krakow commented that, ``Before `Currents,' even those Boston people who were relatively sophisticated would be three years behind the larger art scene. It's performed a tremendous service.'' Jan Fontein, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, said that ``a noncontroversial program in contemporary art would be terribly dull.'' He added that ``the fact that the institute has survived at all is something of a miracle.''

In 1986, the ICA is more than surviving, it's thriving, with a solid budget, increased attendance, and vastly expanded performance, lecture, and video programs.

Educational outreach to the city's high schools has increased. Augmenting the ICA's resources, Ross has initiated collaborations with local cultural institutions, including Dance Umbrella, the Goethe Institute, and the acclaimed American Repertory Theatre. He has also established the Contemporary Art Television Fund, a partnership with Boston public television station WGBH, to support the production and distribution of video art. Boston has gained new prominence in the national and international scene; ICA shows are now reviewed in international periodicals, and artists worldwide enthusiastically apply for exhibition consideration.

Having achieved such a high measure of stability, the ICA is likely to be expanding its facilities and may embark on a collecting program.

Ross asserted, however, that although ``the ICA's non-collecting status is always up for debate and reconsideration, we will remain committed to the concept of the ICA, which is an institution devoted to intellectual inquiry, risk-taking, and open-minded activity.''

That fluidity is undoubtedly the key to the Institute of Contemporary Art's transformative mission, as well as to its extraordinary tenacity. And as to the institute's teen image, Ross exultantly observes that ``the ICA is a perpetual adolescent, in the best sense of energetic, and filled with promise. It's still fresh, it still makes mistakes, it still does goofy things. Contemporary art is also still fresh, and occasionally goofy. So it's a good mix.''

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