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ICA plans major expansion — across the harbor in East Boston

The Institute of Contemporary Art’s new waterfront satellite will be filled with immersive artworks, and admission will be free — a rarity in the Boston area. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe staff/file

The Institute of Contemporary Art is planning a major expansion — across the harbor in East Boston, in a large dilapidated industrial space once occupied by a copper pipe shop.

The museum’s new waterfront satellite will be filled with immersive artworks, and admission will be free to the public — a rarity in the Boston area. And if all goes according to plan, visitors will be able to dash there by water taxi from the ICA’s home base in the Seaport.

The $10 million renovation project will give the ICA an additional 15,000 square feet, mostly unvarnished space for artists to create works on a seasonal basis.


The addition of the long and narrow building — currently condemned — will increase the museum’s overall exhibition space by more than 50 percent.

It is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018 in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. Dubbed the “Watershed,” it will also house a small gallery dedicated to the history of the shipyard and a flexible gathering area with harbor views.

With East Boston booming, the Watershed museum space would join such public venues as KO Catering and Pies and the new Downeast Cider House in the shipyard area.

“There’s not a lot of raw industrial space for art in Boston,” said ICA director Jill Medvedow.  “This offers opportunities for artists to work differently, and for audiences to engage differently. That’s something we’re really eager to explore.”

Medvedow said the space will initially be open only in the warmer months “when the harbor is easy to traverse,” with the possibility of eventually opening year round.

“It’s experimental,” Medvedow said. “We’ll be working with a handful of artists over time, one per season. . . . I’m so engaged in this idea of different artists responding to the same site.”

Once a lonely outpost in the Seaport, the ICA has sought opportunities for years to expand beyond its current 65,000-square-foot building.


“We have this great building, but it’s relatively small,” said ICA board member Steve Corkin. “Jill articulated it years ago, a dream of how great it would be to expand across the harbor.”

The ICA attracted about 210,000 visitors last year. In 2015, the museum proposed — and then abandoned — an effort to expand into an adjacent office tower across the street in the bustling Seaport.

The museum has now signed a letter of understanding to take over the old copper pipe shop, and is working out the details of a five-year lease with Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, which manages the site for its owner, the Massachusetts Port Authority. Medvedow added that there will be opportunities to renew the lease, saying she believed “this is something that will continue for another decade at least.”

Joe Sugar, a partner in Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, said that while the site remains an active hub of maritime industries, the ICA’s cultural outpost is welcome.

“They’re the perfect fit for what we’re looking to do here,” said Sugar, who added that the museum won’t be paying market rate for the 1920s-era building. “Obviously, they’re putting a lot of money into the building, and we’re taking that into consideration.”

The ICA hopes to open the Watershed site in 2018 and operate it during the warmer months at first, with access by water taxi from the museum area.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Medvedow estimated that the renovation and programming costs for the initial five-year term would cost roughly $10 million, which she said the museum can raise without launching a formal capital campaign.


“I have every confidence we’ll be able to financially support this project,” Medvedow said. “The board will be able to champion this.”

Corkin, who chairs the ICA board’s real estate and building committee, said the board was “incredibly enthusiastic” about the new venture.

“It’s like a palpable excitement,” Corkin said. “We’re totally confident that we have the support and will raise the funds from our board and the broader community.”

The Watershed building, which still encloses remnants of the train tracks that formerly moved materials around the shipyard, will not deliver traditional white-wall gallery space. There will also be no cafe, though Medvedow said she was exploring pop-up ideas to offer light refreshments.

“It doesn’t offer the kind of expansion for making more gallery exhibitions or displaying our permanent collection,” said Medvedow, adding that the museum has been exploring “different modes of growth.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh added his approval for the project, saying in a statement that it will “offer Boston a new, engaging space for art and discovery, and I welcome their investment in Boston’s diverse artists, residents and visitors.”

Before opening in 2018, the Watershed still needs to go through the permitting process, which Medvedow said would probably wrap up this summer. The museum has also engaged the Boston-area firm Anmahian Winton Architects to design the renovation of the building, which Sugar said has been unoccupied for the past 15-20 years.

“We want and need to make it safe,” Medvedow said. “But the intent is to maintain the industrial vocabulary of the space, to keep it as raw and open as possible — so it’s a small ‘d’ design.”


Medvedow said she was particularly excited about linking the ICA’s seaport location to East Boston via water taxi: “I’ve come to understand the harbor as the ICA’s front yard and East Boston’s front yard, so we’re neighbors.”

Joe Sugar, a partner in Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, toured the former copper pipe shop on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.