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September 9-12, 2021   Javits Center

Anne Ellegood, the recently appointed Executive Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, speaks with The Armory Show about her unwavering belief in art as a catalyst for political and social change and her commitment to supporting large-scale initiatives. — Interview by Ellie Clark

Anne Ellegood. Photo credit: Andre Vippolis.

After a decade at the Hammer Museum, you recently started at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), during a moment of significant transition for the organization. As the ICA LA’s new Executive Director, how do you foresee guiding the institution’s rebranding?

Former Executive Director Elsa Longhauser accomplished a great deal by moving the museum from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles and renovating the building. In September, we opened our third fall season in our new building. I have joined ICA LA at a moment in which it appears from the outside that our transition is complete, but, on the inside, we are still transitioning in terms of building our staff and board and growing our fundraising capacities. The museum has been rebranded with a new name and new location, which has been a great source of pride and excitement. Our mission is strong and distinct. My current focus is to work closely with ICA LA’s stellar staff and board to even further enhance and articulate our vision, priorities, and a strategy to meet our goals. I want to raise our profile and expand our viewership, so we are able to share our great exhibitions and programs with a wider and more diverse audience.

"Art has a fundamental part to play in providing visibility and support for those who are disempowered or alienated within mainstream society’s power structures."

Installation view of Charles Long, Made in L.A., 2018, June 3-September 2, 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

You have stated that many of the issues facing the city of Los Angeles are visible just outside ICA LA, such as rising rents, gentrification, and homelessness. What are some ways in which the ICA LA plans to engage more broadly with the Los Angeles community?

ICA LA’s new location in downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) has been inspiring for our staff, board, and audiences. We are on the south end of the Arts District, with several peer institutions that we respect a great deal in close proximity. The University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design graduate programs moved nearby. At the same time, homelessness and the displacement that inevitably attends rising rents are visible right outside our doors. We are an urban institution that faces the street. As an institution, we don’t want to ignore these realities, but rather try to engage with the challenges facing our city in meaningful ways. Everyone in the Los Angeles arts community who is committed to ensuring that LA remains a viable and thriving city for the arts, and a place that artists will continue to be able to live, should look for opportunities to come together to discuss and work toward solutions for these very important issues. Institutions can—and should—be continually confronted in order to evolve to the particular needs and challenges of the day.

Installation view of Hammer Projects: Tschabalala Self, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 2–April 28, 2019. Photo: Joshua White.

Prior to your curatorial career, where you have maintained a long-standing commitment to projects that explore social justice, you worked at a women’s health clinic promoting women’s reproductive rights. Do you feel art, both as a practice and industry, has a responsibility to raise awareness of marginalization and social inequity?

I believe art can be transformative—opening our minds, raising social consciousness, and helping us to understand the world and ourselves more fully. I believe in the capacity for artists (through the work they make) and institutions (by supporting artists and bringing their work to the public) to make vital contributions to the struggle for social justice and progressive change. Art has a fundamental part to play in providing visibility and support for those who are disempowered or alienated within mainstream society’s power structures. I have had the privilege of working under visionary leaders, such as Marcia Tucker and Ann Philbin, who modeled thinking deeply about the ways in which museums can be at the forefront of critical discourses that examine the intersection of art and social justice and can be platforms for engaging a range of thinkers, artists, and audiences.

"I’m interested in how the Platform projects will add a sense of discovery to visitor’s experience, and change the spatial dynamics of the fair by punctuating the repetition of the booths with larger scale projects."

Aaron Fowler: When Rain Is Right I'm As Right As Rain, 2016-17, and El Camino, 2016-17. Installation view, Made in L.A. 2018, June 3-September 2, 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Akin to the Platform section that you are curating at The Armory Show 2020, at the Hammer Museum you organized Hammer Projects, single-gallery exhibitions highlighting new works and installations by contemporary artists, which were often at a pivotal moment of the artist’s development. Can you speak to the impact you’ve seen large-scale projects like these have on an artist’s career? And why do you gravitate toward these types of initiatives?

Through both the Hammer Projects series and Made in L.A., the Hammer’s ongoing biennial of Los Angeles–based artists, the Hammer has shown a longstanding commitment to supporting artists by helping them realize major new works and installations. In many cases, these projects are the first time artists have had the opportunity to work closely with a curator and other staff at the museum. The Hammer’s lobby wall projects are a great example of a challenging architectural space that has nonetheless been the setting for dozens of impressive installations in which artists have pushed their practices in terms of scale and ambition. In the context of the art fair, I’m interested in how the Platform projects will add a sense of discovery to visitor’s experience, and change the spatial dynamics of the fair by punctuating the repetition of the booths with larger scale projects.

Your theme for the 2020 Platform section considers how contemporary artists use techniques of satire, caricature, and the grotesque as tools of social critique. Given the upcoming 2020 election, it feels particularly apt to consider how artists are responding to the current cultural and political moment. Were there any specific artists or artworks that inspired you to focus on these unconventional approaches?

Works of art that include social critique have long been of interest to me. My graduate thesis exhibition many years ago included the work of Nicole Eisenman, Kara Walker, and Sue Williams, and through their work I became captivated by the ways in which longstanding artistic techniques like satire, caricature, the grotesque, and even just humor, are provocative and useful avenues to consider urgent social matters. Given the current and fraught state of affairs in politics and international relations, and with the presidential election coming up this year, it seemed a perfect moment to focus on this theme. I’m excited about the range of projects that will be included in the Platform section, from an important, large-scale sculpture from the 1980s by Ed and Nancy Kienholz called The Caddy Court, which examines the Supreme Court to fantastic works by young artists like Trulee Hall and Summer Wheat.