Since the Institute of Contemporary Art moved to the Seaport District, in 2006, its director, Jill Medvedow, has gazed out her museum windows mulling over how to artistically engage Boston Harbor, and how to reach across the water to East Boston.
On July 4, the ICA will open a new exhibition space there, the Watershed, in Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. Museum admission will include a water taxi across the harbor. Admission to the Watershed is free, regardless of whether you’ve visited the ICA. This year, it will be open through Oct. 8. In the future, exhibitions will be on view from May to October.
The 15,000-square-foot venue consists of a large gallery for immersive installations, a smaller one spotlighting the history of East Boston, and a gathering place for community and educational projects. The first installation features work by video artist Diana Thater.
The building, a former copper pipe and sheet metal factory, was condemned when Medvedow found it in 2017. “The roof was caving in. It was dilapidated, in shambles,” she says. “It was rough, but I loved it.”
The ICA is spending $10 million to fund the building renovation and five years of programming. Anmahian Winton Architects redesigned the long, narrow space. It was originally built in 1943, according to Aaron Bruckerhoff, principal at the firm, and plenty of history remained, including railroad tracks that once carried freight into and out of the factory, a cinderblock and concrete wall, and cantilevered jib cranes and gantry cranes for loading.
The greatest renovation challenge? “Knitting it all together,” says Nick Winton, Anmahian Winton’s partner in charge of design. “Trying to architecturally decide how much artifact and how much new museum we wanted to have together.”
It’s a canny mix. The tracks remain embedded in the concrete floor, which is newly patched and leveled. Columns have been torn down. The roof has been replaced and raised, to 25 feet. The cranes and gantries are still here, and so is graffiti on the old concrete wall, where someone called Sully once scrawled his name.
“It’s a palimpsest approach to everything,” says Winton. “We don’t know Sully, but he’s now a part of the ICA’s building.”
Thater, whose art explores the natural world’s peril in the face of human enterprise, often makes site-specific art that grapples with unusual spaces. Her largest work here, “Delphine,” engages the architecture and ties right to the water.
The piece features four large video projections of dolphins swimming undersea. The images slide hypnotically over walls and floor, encompassing viewers. A magenta sun laced with blue glows on a video wall. It’s all purposely disorienting, confounding perceptions of space and time. But with Boston Harbor just out the back door, it’s also right at home.
As a museum space, one of the Watershed’s unlikely characteristics is an abundance of natural light. With windows and doors on either end, it feels welcoming and open to the sea breezes. A new skylight runs the length of the building along one wall. Thater has covered it with colored gels, which shed red and purple beams, and more sun passes through blue she’s placed on the Harbor-side door.
The ICA comes to a neighborhood on the cusp of change, just as it entered the Seaport on the leading edge of the development boom there. The East Boston waterfront has been quiet for decades, says lifelong resident Diane Modica, an artist and a former city councilor. Other than the shipyard, she says, “We had nothing going on on the piers.”
But in recent years, residential developments have been on the rise. Massport is developing more green space. The neighborhood, which has always had a strong community of artists, has never been a cultural destination. Now it will be.
“The economic impact of [the ICA’s] presence in the shipyard cannot be underestimated,” Modica says. “It is big. It will be an economic catalyst for us.”
Medvedow says the museum is taking a different approach from what it did in the Seaport.
“When the ICA was built, Fan Pier was an ocean of parking lots,” she says. “We are entering a neighborhood here. It’s very different to enter a neighborhood than to pioneer one.”
The museum has reached out to organizations such as the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, East Boston Social Centers, Maverick Landing Community Services, and the teen music program Zumix to develop programming aimed at neighborhood residents.
“It’s a grand experiment on their part,” says Modica. “We’re excited, and I think all the relationships developing out of it are good for them and good for us.”
Medvedow won’t reveal who is in the mix for next summer’s exhibition, but she says the Watershed will always spotlight the work of a single artist or artist group. “There will be commissions of new works of art responding to this location and site,” she says. “There’s so much richness to respond to. The physical texture, the historical depth.”
First, she wants to open the new space and see what transpires. “I am quite confident there is a lot we don’t know,” she says. “We don’t know our audience yet. It takes a good couple of years to learn how to program a building. . . . It’s a steep learning curve.”
Still, the benefits to art lovers and to East Boston residents are immediate, and it’s clear that while art is at the heart of the ICA’s new enterprise, the community is its lifeblood.
Standing outside the Watershed, Medvedow marvels at the renovation. “It’s an amazing transformation,” she says.
At Institute of Contemporary Art Watershed, 256 Marginal St., East Boston, July 4-Oct. 8. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org