What's new on Boston's arts scene?

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When the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) moved to dramatic new quarters on the South Boston waterfront, it foreshadowed a phenom. A half-decade later, Boston's most prominent and prestigious artistic institutions are upgrading their contemporary offerings in significant ways. In a city known for its historical sites, this artistic trend is a welcome surprise. Take a tour of Boston's new and improved arts scene.

Untitled by Mike Linksvayer. Creative Commons Attribution licence

ICA Boston

The star of the contemporary show is still the ICA. Featuring all manner of new media (currently glass works, street art and paper cutting) the cutting-edge exhibits have been acclaimed as diverse  and daring.

Although the ICA is 75 years old, it is only in recent years that the institute has begun to develop a permanent collection. Its core is work by artists that have been featured in ICA exhibits. So it's not large, but it is continuously expanding, and every year offers a new installation of recent acquisitions.

Arguably, the building is as much an attraction as the art. The glass structure, cantilevered over a harbourside plaza, skilfully incorporates the environs into the architecture. In the Founders Gallery, which spans the width of the building, a glass wall virtually removes any barrier between viewer and seascape. In this striking new home, the ICA attracts 200,000 visitors a year - ten times the number of visitors that used to frequent the old location.

Untitled by Lindsay Hickman. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence

Museum of Fine Arts

Almost in response to the public's growing appetite, the Museum of Fine Arts opened the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011. The renovation of the west wing - originally designed by IM Pei - has nearly tripled the size of exhibition space for contemporary work at the MFA. The collection itself is spotty: the exhibit's organization by theme gets around its lack of comprehensiveness. But it offers some intriguing highlights by artists of international renown, such as Dale Chihuly and El Anatsui. More importantly, in its new quarters, it has room to grow.

Local artists

Both the MFA and the ICA feature a few local stars in their line-ups, most notably glass blower Josiah McElhany; but they are unfortunately not in the business of supporting the local scene.

Nonetheless, Boston is nurturing a budding gallery scene, most evident in the South End. From the former factories and warehouses on Harrison Ave (or So-uth of Wa-shington, if you prefer), artists have carved out studio and gallery space.  On the first Friday evening of every month, the SoWa Artists Guild hosts a popular open studios event, drawing as many as 1000 curious onlookers to hobnob with the artists and peruse their work.

Other art institutions around the city are taking steps to keep up with the trend. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - famed for its benefactress' stipulation that the collection never be altered - bucked tradition in 2012 and unveiled an eye-catching new wing, featuring facilities to support an artist-in-residency program. In 2013, Harvard Art Museums will complete a renovation and expansion intended to transform the museum into a `laboratory for the fine arts'. Boston is busting out of its conservative reputation and establishing itself, for the first time in more than a century, on the cutting edge of contemporary art and culture.

'Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum' by kevinderrick. Creative Commons Attribution licence

What's happening right now?

  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: the new Renzo Piano Wing exhibits work by past and present artists-in-residence, such as the Raqs Media Collective - on display from September 2012.
  • Museum of Fine Arts: level one of the Linde Wing is mostly dedicated to rotating exhibits - currently the photographs of Mario Testino.
  • ICA: the art of the 1980s is on display this fall and winter in an ambitious overview of the decade, entitled This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.
  • SoWa Artists Guild: meet the artists on the first Friday evening of every month, or check out the street-level galleries during daytime hours.