Dominic Willsdon’s first impression of Richmond was strong — one of scenic walks along the James River and visits to Carytown’s iconic bookstore, Chop Suey, places he considers just as valuable to visual culture as art galleries.
Set to begin his position as executive director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU Dec. 1, Willsdon is getting to know the city in a series of trips from his home in Oakland, California. For the last 12 years, he’s been the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Practice at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Though much of his professional life has been concentrated in larger cities — such as San Francisco and London — Willsdon hails from Liverpool, England, which is comparable in size to Richmond.
“That sense of powerful, deep-rooted civic culture that a medium-sized city can have is actually quite interesting to me,” Willsdon said. “These can be terrific places to set out, to explore what’s going on in contemporary culture.”
The ICA first popped up on Willsdon’s radar when Chief Curator Stephanie Smith was appointed in Sept. 2016. The two didn’t know each other, Willsdon said, but he was familiar with her work. Around the same time, he began tracking the ICA’s development.
“It was really interesting to me to see this brand new institution, which I think really has a chance to break the mold on what university-based art institutions can do,” Willsdon said. “I’ve long felt a kind of affinity with the university context and how that context could be interesting to think about contemporary art.”
Willsdon’s interest in art began in childhood, but academia didn’t pique his interest until later in life — he wasn’t necessarily “top of the class” in high school, he said. It was through creativity, design and art that he gained a sense of achievement and an understanding of the world, which created a path through which he returned to academia. Willsdon holds a Ph.D and master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Essex, England, in addition to a master’s degree with honors in fine art from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
“The environment of art was really important to me at a very young age for just understanding how to orient myself to the world,” Willsdon said.
As part of his second-to-last visit to VCU before beginning the position, Willsdon said he’s excited to be at the university this week for the first time since the semester began. He traveled to the ICA this summer and viewed the inaugural exhibition, “Declaration” before it closed Sept. 9.
“I think [Declaration] is a tremendously bold opening gesture for a young institution and I think it was recognized as such very broadly,” Willsdon said. “It shows a nimble character that the program can have and the way in which an institution can respond to what’s going on in the world in a much more agile way, much more than a larger museum.”
This responsiveness is important to Willsdon, both for political and non-political topics. To him, the ICA “can and should” explore different practices — such as exhibitions, talks and performances — equally.
“All of these things can be channels for thinking about experiencing what’s going on in contemporary life,” Willsdon said.
Using VCU as a platform, Willsdon said, the ICA can perform these functions on an international scale. His background and connections will enable global discussions and contributions. Though no partnerships or collaborations are ready to be announced, Willsdon said the ICA’s international network will be a topic of discussion early-on.
“This really needs to be an institute that people are talking about in other countries,” Willsdon said.
Willsdon will return to VCU for the Oct. 17 opening of the ICA’s fall exhibitions, “Hedges Edges, Dirt” and “Provocations: Rashid Johnson.”