Tasty art snacks

Amy Sadao with Jeremy Deller's 1997 wall painting "The History of the World" at ICA at Penn; Deller's the subject of an exhibition, "Joy of People."
Amy Sadao with Jeremy Deller's 1997 wall painting "The History of the World" at ICA at Penn; Deller's the subject of an exhibition, "Joy of People." (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 31, 2012

Among the many cool things about the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), 50 years old next year, is . . . tea time.

"Everybody on the staff alternates, and each afternoon, one of us serves tea."

That's Amy Sadao, appointed in June as the institute's director after years in the New York art community. The ICA is associated with the University of Pennsylvania, its charge to involve the public with modern and contemporary art.

Sadao pours, standing in an English snack bar. A full-size replica of one, that is. In the museum. It's an art installation, titled Valerie's Snack Bar (2009), by Jeremy Deller, a British artist with a huge exhibition at the institute through Dec. 30. Based on a real snack bar in Manchester, England, it's at once funny, loving, downbeat, and ironic.

Sadao loves it, admires Deller's work ("I can't believe I'm helping show his work to the public!"), and gets a kick out of pouring tea as part of a work of art.

The person she's serving enters the artwork, too, plus the whole staff, each afternoon, and - crucially - members of the public, when they come to see Valerie's Snack Bar and other works at the ICA. Art as process. As thinking. As fun.

The title of the Deller exhibition is "Joy inout People." "I think I'll make that my personal slogan," says Sadao.

On fire with art and her job, she comes with rich experience in contemporary art, art with social and political roots, art in communities and society. She was executive director of Visual AIDS, a nonprofit visual arts organization dedicated to HIV awareness and prevention. And she helped catalog, curate, and exhibit contemporary art all over Gotham.

While pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree in the '90s at Cooper Union in New York, Sadao discovered something. "I realized I was a terrible artist," she says with a laugh. She was inspired by such artist-colleagues as Amy Cutler and Adriana Farmiga, but "I just didn't want to stay, all by myself, in some studio making work. I was having a better time helping other people curate and exhibit." Her eyes spark as she recounts helping artist Matt King bolt a house he'd made into the ceiling of a museum for an installation.

There followed internships at the Whitney Museum (where she worked with then-curator Thelma Golden) and elsewhere. "I had the best mentors in the world," she says. "Many became friend-tors. I really came to learn the business."

That's yet another of her talents: She ties a mean set of purse strings, essential for the museum director of today, especially, as she says, "in not the best economy, for us or anyone else."

"Anybody can support the arts - and they should," she says. "It's part of being a good citizen, of taking ownership of your community. Donate to the ICA, or to Kelly Writers House, or the Print Center, to local artists, do open-studio tours, make purchases directly from local artists, buy independent books, go to art fairs." ICA throws itself open to outside public activity, too - Excursus invited programs about Occupy Philadelphia.

With her social-political edge, she fits right in. But where did that come from? What radicalized her?

"The experience of growing up in Huntington Beach [California], growing up in overwhelmingly Caucasian surroundings," she says. "The local chapter of the KKK actually left my dad a little calling card at his office. Things like that make you think about what it means to be a citizen.

"Art should be alive for the community, should talk about what's happening. People should feel a sense of ownership of the art that's in this city - the Claes Oldenberg Clothespin next to City Hall, or the Isamu Noguchi Lightning Bolt at the end of the Ben Franklin Bridge."

How did such a New Yorker get to love Philly so much? "When I was living in New York, I used to come down to Philly as often as I could," she says. "To come here, to the institute. I think the institute is the best of its kind, up with any contemporary art museum anywhere."

She admires the Penn Compact of Penn president Amy Gutmann ("the way it takes so seriously the university's relationship with the community"), and she followed the work of then-ICA curator Jenelle Porter and current senior curator Ingrid Schaffner. Plus she's an avid reader of Rachel Pastan's ICA blog titled "Miranda." "I was drawn to the idea of an institution that reaches out to the public and makes today's art available for people to experience."

It doesn't hurt that Sadao's partner, poet and publisher Tom Devaney, "knows all the myriad poetry, writing, dance, fashion design, sporting events, music, and contemporary art, scenes and communities and institutions here. It's a gracious city."

So how do you get folks to know you're here? How do you reach out?

"OK, two things: (1) It's free. And (2) the Sansom Commons 36th Street station is right there. Come, come again, come often. We're doing so much. We cycle in new exhibits every four to six months, and we have so many public programs. Come as often as you like, and learn new things about the art."

Deller is definitely a multimedia artist, employing photography, video, painting, and found art. There's a film about the 1980s synth-rock band Depeche Mode, and how, bizarrely, it was adopted as an anthemic standard-bearer by young folks in communist countries struggling for independence. And there's Valerie's Snack Bar. Generous explanatory text on the walls helps beholders get situated.

Sadao's ICA is always experimenting with ways to involve visitors. In the series titled "Excursus," artists from all over the country come to create installations that, on one hand, involve the rich archives of the institute, and on the other, give visitors a range of things to do.

"Excursus III: Ooga Booga," through Dec. 16, is by Wendy Yao of Los Angeles (she runs an art center called Ooga Booga). It involves a lot of different ways of rethinking what a museum space might do. There's a "group affinity table" - that assembles as a public workbench or hangout place or reading area. There's a slide-out flat file of institute clips and archives, much of it involving cats. ("Evidently," Sadao says, "Wendy is fond of cats.") Thanks to Yao's love of zine culture and bookmaking, a bookshelf offers zines such as Jigsaw, the Exhibitionist, and the local Megawords. There's a lovely huge blue hammock.

Also part of "Excursus III" is the Sumi Ink Club, a local chapter of a national effort in which Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara join with - anybody! - to create group artworks on the windows of the institute. Their band, Lucky Dragons, performs at the "Excursus III" closing on Dec. 16.

On Wednesday, ICA will screen the winners of its Open Video Call for art videos, which then will be on view during the ICA winter season. In February, a show titled "White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart" will explore clothing and bodily adornment.

"These are invitations to come and be, to linger," Sadao says, "to find different ways into the art. And to make the experience your own."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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