A broiling Saturday afternoon seemed a good time to take advantage of a museum membership that, on this day, included a slow boat trip across Boston Harbor: light ocean breeze; the busy, quiet traffic of pleasure craft in the “No Wake” zone; and the beckoning opposite shore, the Jeffries Point boatyard watched over by the row houses on the hill. Meanwhile, the Seaport District receded: glass-box office buildings and condos, luxury boutiques, high-end restaurants.
The occasion was the opening week of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new East Boston outpost, the Watershed, a renovated industrial space — long abandoned and condemned — in the East Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. Announced last spring, the new building will offer single-artist seasonal exhibits, from late May to early October. Its 15,000 square feet expands the exhibition space of the ICA’s home across the harbor by 50 percent. The work on display this season is by Diana Thater, a veteran film and video artist who specializes in nature and environmental themes.
The ICA promised that the project would be an outreach to the neighborhood, and it is. For one, it’s free. A short video draws on interviews with historians and neighborhood residents, explaining East Boston’s history as a bustling shipyard and a gateway for immigrants. The interview subjects range in age, gender, and ethnicity. A neighborhood doyenne remembers her father and his brothers working in the shipyard, the sounds and smells, the last of the ferry trips to Boston, in December 1952. A younger Latino resident explains how one wave of immigration subsumed another — Italians following the Irish, Latinos following the Italians.
The building retains its rough-hewn look, rusted iron and cinderblock alternating with museum white-wall. Its vast open space, which allows an uninterrupted view from one end to the other, will be reminiscent to some of the cathedral-like renovated industrial spaces Mass MoCA in North Adams.
On this day, with the doors open to the sunny afternoon, the space was dark and cool. Thater’s site-specific installation comprises ambient lighting, wall and floor projections, and freestanding screens — dolphins at play, day-for-night footage of flowers and rain, endangered species such as monarch butterflies and bull elephants, and Sudan, the last male white rhinoceros, munching grass while protected by two armed guards in military uniform.
A gallery at the far end of building is meant as a “space for gathering and education.” On exhibit are vibrant color photos of the neighborhood, taken by teens in the ICA’s photography program.
The museum’s water taxi lands at the foot of Piers Park, with its terraced lawns, low-canopied shade trees, and a small playground with a wading fountain. Families were sprawled on blankets on the lawn along the walkway, under the trees, a light, cooling breeze blowing in from the harbor.
From the park, we looked out to the boats moored near the pier, and the busy harbor beyond, and the boxy structures of the Seaport — from “one of the first planned neighborhoods in Boston,” so the video told us, to one that has sprung up haphazard, with, it seems, no planning at all. It’s not as though East Boston is untouched by gentrification. Signs on the T advertise luxury condos in “Boston. East.” But it’s probably safe to say those tech industry glass boxes won’t find a home here. And, one way or another, Eastie will remain a real neighborhood. Inside the Watershed is another reminder of the area’s recent history, one that the designers of this $5 million renovation had the taste to preserve — a white-scrawled bit of graffiti: “Sully.”
Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.