One Life Spotlight: The New Kid On The Block

On the heels of opening its new building in the Miami Design District, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami – along with its director, Ellen Salpeter – focuses on how it can be a resource for the community. Learn more about how the ICA is satisfying Miami’s hunger for art in the Fall 2017 edition of One Life Magazine. Read the full article below, then check out the entire issue online for more on lifestyles in Miami.

The New Kid on the Block by Rob Goyanes

For Ellen Salpeter, it was a bit of a revelation to see Miami’s hunger for art and discourse.

“Every time we host a program, such as a lecture or an artist talk, we are at capacity,” says Salpeter, who has served as director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami since 2015. “It surprised me that there’s this real appetite for learning more and having more… I didn’t know it was quite as intense as it is.”

The ICA, which was temporarily headquartered in the Design District’s Moore Building, is in the final phases of constructing a new building that is double the size of its former location, with nearly 20,000 square feet of adjustable gallery spaces across three floors. Salpeter, a veteran of overseeing large cultural organizations, is anticipating the December 1 opening.

As a native of Queens, New York, Salpeter grew up in a place where art has a long history and well-established infrastructure. Instead of a single moment where the power of art struck, she believes it was prolonged exposure that led to her passion. “Big days were going into the city to visit the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History,” she says.

Her childhood home cntaied art, too – mostly reproductions, and later some original works. Her parents were particularly interested in sound sculpture by Harry Bertoia and works by Alex Katz and Morris Louis. “I think they were fascinated by modernity,” she says.

This fascination spurred Salpeter’s career as an art administrator and leader. After graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in business management, she moved to France. “It was a very fertile moment in Paris in the ’80s,” she says. There, she was exposed to local, continental and international art scenes.

“When I moved back to the States, I worked in commercial art management and licensing and was really interested in reproducibility and accessibility in the arts,” she says. Salpeter started a small publishing company called Permanent Press, where she oversaw projects from the likes of poet Kenneth Goldsmith and vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara.

From 1994 to 2001, she was executive director of Thread Waxing Space, an experimental, multidisciplinary arts nonprofit in SoHo. Following that she founded Heart of Brooklyn, which focused on community engagement among cultural institutions, a skill she would bring with her to Miami. While in New York, she also helped overhaul a 109-year-old institution as deputy director of external affairs at the Jewish Museum. “It was about dusting it off and taking what made it such a great institution and building on that,” she says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how art can impact everyday lives, and how a culturally specific institution can be relevant to a broader audience.”

Now, at the helm of a relatively fresh contemporary art museum, Salpeter is thinking about how the institution can continue to be a resource for the Miami community beyond the rank-and-file art world. Besides offering free admission and family activities, the ICA works “across the social services spectrum to bring arts education into people’s lives and use it as a tool to build self-esteem,” Salpeter says. The museum’s efforts include working with children of incarcerated families through a partnership with a juvenile justice program.

The museum’s new building, designed by Spanish firm Aranguren & Gallegos Arquitectos, will provide expanded opportunities for such engagement. The new building’s first major survey—titled “The Everywhere Studio” and takes up the second- and third-floor galleries—will showcase works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Carolee Schneemann and Matthew Barney. “With the expansion and new building, we will be able to connect the art of the post-war to the contemporary and provide a bit of arts history to the community,” Salpeter says. The new space will also house six large-scale commissions and a sculpture garden.

Still, even with an established collection and patronage, difficulties inevitably remain. “The challenge in any organization, but particularly with a new museum, is awareness,” Salpeter says. Given her track record, however, she seems more than ready for the work at hand. “It’s an ongoing challenge, she says, “but also an opportunity.”

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