Millions of people have streamed through the Institute of Contemporary Art since its Seaport location opened in 2006, but the visitors—and the museum higher-ups—all seemed to want more art on view. When nothing was working out for more space in the neighborhood, ICA director Jill Medvedow looked across its front lawn—Boston Harbor—to East Boston.

“The way our architect created our current building, they did create the front of the building to look out over the harbor,” says Kelly Gifford, the ICA’s deputy director for public engagement and planning. “Jill actually got on a water taxi and went directly across the harbor—and that was the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina.”

After working with the shipyard and the owners at Massport, the ICA reached an agreement to fix up a condemned warehouse for $10 million. The 15,000-square-foot spot, the Watershed, will be free to the public when it opens on July 4 with an exhibit from Diana Thater. The works explore the fragility of the natural world with videos and light installations that show scenes from the last white rhino with its protectors and another piece that makes visitors feel like they’re swimming with dolphins.

“There’s multiple galleries at the ICA, so you could love two artists but maybe not connect to another one,” Gifford says. “But in the Watershed, we’re giving the space over to one artist [each year], and Diana Thater’s work is beautiful, immersive, stunning—and it’s something we felt a really wide audience could relate to.

VAST NEW WORLD: A rendering of the ICA Watershed shows the renovated warehouse, which will be filled with works by Diana Thater. Photo credit: Fredrik Nilsen

“It’s a new model for us, and a really different museum than what you see here with white gallery walls and security guards. This place is supposed to be a really different feeling than your typical museum space,” Gifford says. “You couldn’t find two different neighborhoods. Seaport is highly privatized, and East Boston is filled with these incredible communities and neighborhoods that have been there for centuries.”While ICA visitors can take a six-minute water taxi ride, running hourly on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends, the museum is also hoping to attract the East Boston community. It’s partnering with three groups—East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, East Boston Social Center and Maverick Landing Community Services—to cultivate relationships, host staff and constituents, and see what the community wants out of its space. The ICA is making sure all signage at the Watershed is bilingual since, according to Gifford, the majority of their new neighbors speak Spanish as their primary language, and the space will also be flexible enough to host events and be a spot where visitors can relax with their families.

That’s a history that Gifford is also hoping Watershed visitors will be able to learn more about. The entrance to the space includes a small gallery devoted to the evolution of the shipyard, while an area after Thater’s exhibition features a photo installation from the ICA’s teen arts organization that includes shots from Piers Park and the rest of Eastie.

“You start with the history of the shipyard and you kind of end with this contemporary glimpse at where East Boston is today,” Gifford says. “I don’t think there’s anything like this space in Boston. I can’t think of another industrial, raw space in Boston that’s free to the public that’s going to house contemporary art. 


ICA Watershed 256 Marginal St., Boston (617-478-3100)

ICA Watershed

256 Marginal St., Boston

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