Street: Can you describe for me your role at the Institute of Contemporary Art?
Maori Holmes: Oh, that’s a great question. So I’m the Director of Public Engagement, which is a brand new position and a new department, and so in some ways my job is still evolving. I’m mostly concerned with—well, I oversee Visitor Services and then I also oversee Audience Development in a sense, but also the way that the Institution interfaces with both Penn as a campus and then the greater Philadelphia community. So looking at ways
that visitors feel more welcome and how they experience the museum, but also how to bring them to the museum. So thinking about getting different kinds of audiences, broadening the audience that we have, helping to educate the audience that comes for the first time, how to get them to come back.
Street: Going off of your position, how did you come to choose to work at ICA? What’s your background?
MH: My background is somewhat all over the place, although in many ways I think that it’s perfect for this position. I worked in the music industry and then went to film school and ended up working in arts administration. When I go backwards, I started out working in art administration. My first job when I was 13 was gallery sitting, so in some ways I realized that I was set up for this.
Street: Just generally, maybe for the Penn student who’s skeptical about careers in the humanities, how do you feel about working in an art institution?
MH: My bachelor's is in history, and I firmly believe in the humanities because it makes us richer people. I know that Penn is a largely professional school and people are studying to become lawyers and scientists and things like that, and I think that those things are also important, but I think that as human beings that we need to have an understanding of everything else around us. I wanted to major in something that was going to hold my interest, and history ended up being that degree, and I actually ended up still using it to this day. It informs everything that I do. I think students feel a lot of pressure to make a decision about what you’re going to do, and I think the humanities allow you not to have that pressure. I have a history degree, but I’ve worked in journalism, I’ve worked in the music industry, and I’ve worked in arts administration.
Street: As the Director of Public Engagement, how do you see the relationship between ICA and Penn and between ICA and Philadelphia in general?
MH: Well, ICA is a world–renowned museum that has been on the cutting edge of presenting very very, kind of like the next best artists. It’s on the cutting edge of what artists are doing, if you think of artists like Alex Da Corte, and Jayson Musson, even going back to artists like Glenn Ligon. People are here first, and then these artists blow up. I think this says a lot about the caliber of the work that for the past 53 years continues to be here. That said, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 15 years and I don’t feel like a lot of people that I know know about the ICA. And I also don’t feel like the people on the campus know about us either. That’s really challenging, because this is really really a gem of a resource, and I wish that more students and grad students and faculty knew about it. So I really hope that we can figure out how to shift our relationship with both the campus and the city so that more people know about us.
Street: Do you think it’s caused by a general view of contemporary art as being something that’s inaccessible?
MH: I think that art in general—contemporary and older work—I think people feel intimidated by it because of the way it’s taught to us in school. If you had the fortune of having Art History, which a lot of people don’t, it’s some teacher who’s running off the slides and running off all these facts and you feel like you have to hold on to them. And I think that that turns people off. And they feel like well, I don’t understand this work, I can’t enter this space. A lot of museums themselves are built in an ominous fashion, they’re grand, you know, you walk in. It very much feels as if if you’re not of a certain class, you shouldn’t be there. The guards can make people feel very uncomfortable, like the whole setup is like walking into a bank. I think contemporary art on top of that seems less accessible because a lot of the work, to an inexperienced eye feels like ‘oh that’s a chair’ or ‘what is that, I could do that.’ ‘My kid could do that’ is a favorite thing to say. And some of that is valid, but people should still experience it. And I’m not sure how we can shift that dynamic. I’m not sure that we as an institution can do that but we can try. What are ways that we can bring people into the door. Once they actually come in, they can see what we have to offer and my hope is that they can really feel comfortable enough to keep coming.
Street: You’ve already mentioned that the ICA is continually trying to bring people in and break down the stigma of contemporary art being inaccessible, but why should students at Penn, at other schools and people in just greater Philadelphia, why should they come to ICA? What do they have to look forward to? What sort of programs are you putting into place now that you’re here?
MH: Well, one of the things that we’re launching, that we launched this summer are the Brown Bag Conversations, which are these intimate opportunities to talk to curators and staff and artists about their work in this super small environment. Most students only have that opportunity in grad school or when they’re upperclassmen. These are opportunities for anybody—in school or not, to come have these conversations. I think that a lot of the shows that we have and the public programs that go with the exhibits are super special. To go back to the kind of artists who come through here first, this is an opportunity to get close to these people who are going to be major artists. That is just fact, that is just ICA’s history. And so if you are conscious of that I think it can be really cool. You almost never know what’s going to happen with things like Free For Alls and other programs. I just think the more exposure means more confidence.
Street: What do you think of the new show?
MH: I love it, it’s really really incredible. I’m so excited to see the work in this context. My mom’s from Chicago, and so she grew up listening to some of these artists, and I would hear them. For this show I think that both the work is accessible and the theme is too. It’s relevant to our current climate and even to the history of Philadelphia. I hope that this show is so compelling that we can use it to bring people through the door. I’m just very moved and excited about Endless Shout too to see what happens with these performances and conversations.
Street: What does the museum mean for you generally? What is the ICA for you?
MH: We say that we’re interested in the art of our time, and we’re interested in underrepresented, sometimes emerging, sometimes under–explored artists. We want to be ahead of the conversation. And that’s really cool to me, and it feels like being here, that you’re part of something super cool. Also, I love that it’s not separated here from an intellectual pursuit, that the people here are just as interested in the politics and in the history of something as they are in the craft, or in the art world. I also think that at this point, under director Amy Sadao’s leadership, the museum is looking to be a good citizen. Some museums have been talking about that, about the museum citizen. How can we as ICA be a good neighbor in West Philadelphia, how can we be a good neighbor among the other art institutions in the city? What is it we can provide that other institutions aren’t providing? We’re smaller, we can be a little nimbler. I want people to feel at home when they walk in the door.
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed.