Artists and COVID-19 | ICA director remains hopeful for the future

ICA Director Dominic Willsdon with the ICA's newest book about their exhibition 'Great Force'. Photo by Katherine Noble

Katherine Noble, Contributing Writer

Life has changed for everyone as a result of COVID-19. For Dominic Willsdon, executive director of the Institute for Contemporary Art, the biggest change has been a whole lot more sitting. 

In his role at the ICA, Willsdon is connecting with local artists and making plans for the future as usual, but in a digital format, with his many meetings taking place over Zoom. Willsdon remains hopeful for forthcoming possibilities for the art scene in Richmond despite the effects COVID-19 has had on the community.

Willsdon has served as executive director of the ICA since December 2018. He has 18 years of experience as a curator at contemporary art institutions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

We caught up with Willsdon as part of a series in which we see how members of the Richmond arts community are coping with the pandemic, Artists and COVID-19. Here are the highlights from the interview. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


What does your daily life look like right now? 


Well we’ve been continuing to hold our meetings but on Zoom like so many other people. As somebody whose normal job involves a lot of meetings, the schedule is similar, just the format is different. But across a place like the ICA you’ve got a lot of people whose normal job is hands on. You know, creative people, people who work with visitors, students, etc. So life is very different for them. My job is kind of similar [to how it was before COVID-19], I just sit in a chair more, but across the ICA it’s quite different and I think it can be hard on quite a lot of people.


How has your relationship with technology changed?


Well, I think that in the coming years we’ll continue to work in this way to a greater extent than we did before. There’s lots of ways in which we’ll never go back to exactly how things were and I think one of them is a much more profound integration of remote communication alongside in-person communication. One thing that we’ve been talking about and are adjusting to is that different people need to work differently because of their home circumstances. 


Many of our staff have school children and it can be better for them to do what we now call asynchronous communication versus so many meetings. We’ve been learning as we go along. I think, you know, we’re learning about individual needs in terms of how and when people can work and maybe we’ll bring that learning back to real life when we get to do that. Maybe that’ll be a positive.


Are there any books, movies, TV shows, or music that you have been enjoying during this time?  


When I haven’t been doing my job and having those Zoom meetings I’m actually trying to research a new course for next year that I want to teach in the MATX program which is a graduate program across arts and media communications and world studies and literature and it’s about the idea of the south. You know, in the United States, in Europe, in the world, even in our minds — the south that’s in our heads. So I’ve been reading a lot of books around the idea of the south. That’s something I might not have quite yet had time to do if we weren’t doing what we’re doing now.


How is the ICA supporting artists/planning shows?


The next exhibition that we should be able to open, all being well, should be September 10. It’s a group show on the idea of “commonwealth.” It’s actually a project that will exist here at the ICA in Richmond but simultaneously in Philadelphia because Pennsylvania is a commonwealth and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth. So three different institutions in three different commonwealths bringing together a couple dozen artists about that topic at the same time. 


The curatorial team around that has, just in the last few weeks, been thinking about how they might want to change that exhibition to take account of the times we’re in. The idea of a commonwealth is a lot about what we have in common. What resources do we have in common and how do we share our resources? And all of that is obviously top of mind now with what’s going on in the country and the world. So that’s an instance of an exhibition that we were already doing but that now may be changed slightly in theme because of the COVID crisis. 


Meanwhile, we’re also moving into a phase of doing small commissions of local artists and performers in order to kind of help make sure there’s cultural activity within Richmond.


Do you have any words of advice for young artists?


I would really encourage anybody in that field to find whatever ways they can to kind of move ahead with their thinking. You know, even if their doing isn’t exactly what they want it to be right now, they can move ahead with their thinking and be ready to be the kind of artist they want to be when we all emerge from this.


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