Virginia Commonwealth University has named Dominic Willsdon as the new executive director of its Institute for Contemporary Art.
Willsdon replaces Joe Seipel, who served as interim director. The new head is leaving his job as the Leanne and George Roberts curator of education and public practice at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Prior to joining SFMOMA in 2006, he was curator of public programs at the Tate Modern in London for five years, where he helped establish a partnership with the British Film Institute.
He starts the new Richmond job on Dec. 1 and will earn an annual salary of $220,000. Willsdon told Style earlier this week that the new job appealed to him for a number of reasons.
“I’ve always been attached to the ICA format: a mix of different disciplines and practices, performance, dialogue, exhibition, film, etc.,” he explains. “In the big museums I’ve worked for, I’ve sort of tried to create an ICA within those museums. This is a chance to really do something like that in its own right.”
The public university context is also important to him.
“Large-scale, inclusive, diverse, higher education is something I care about a lot,” he says, noting that he will probably be lecturing in art education in the future. “I think being with students is important. [Dealing with contemporary art], you need to talk to as many younger people as you can.”
Shawn Brixey, dean of the university’s art school and co-chairman of the executive search committee, cited Willsdon’s experience curating programs at the Tate Modern, coupled with his commitment to deep community engagement and education in San Francisco.
“[They] make him an ideal leader for the ICA and an exceptional partner for the School of the Arts. His appointment marks a new era for this outstanding institution and a magnificent future for the arts in Richmond and at VCU,” Brixey says by email.
Willsdon grew up in the United Kingdom after his Indian family migrated there from South Africa. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Essex in England, and a master’s degree with honors in fine art from Edinburgh University in Scotland.
“My focus in philosophy was on what makes a democratic culture. To work in art institutions, that question comes up a lot in practice,” he says. “By coincidence, the philosophy I focused on was very influential to architect Steven Holl [who designed the ICA building]. I’m interested to dig into the ideas behind this tremendous building. I feel an affinity already [to the ICA].”
Willsdon says he was quite sympathetic to the vision at the opening of ICA and its inaugural show, “Declaration.”
“It’s aggressively international, which I think is important. It’s a great way that ICA can be a kind of portal to the rest of the world; a view of the world through a Richmond lens. They’re already very attentive of the energies of local communities.”
He’s been visiting Richmond this summer and notes there’s clearly a special moment going on in terms of the culture and economy. “This intense, resonant, weighty history is incredible context if you’re going to deal with the contemporary -- to have that history as a backdrop,” he adds.
Looking back at his job at in San Francisco he’s proud of two things: an exhibition two years ago on contemporary art from South Africa as well as a multiyear initiative, Public Knowledge, in partnership with the San Francisco Public Library that invited artists to reflect on urban change and gentrification.
“I’m very interested in art and culture on the African continent generally,” he says. “And I’m very interested in exhibitions that don’t sit on the wall, but come to life and circulate in different ways.”
In terms of upcoming exhibitions, the institute has “Provocations: Rashid Johnson” and “Hedges, Edges, Dirt” opening Oct. 17. It’s also got a live music series with Richmond’s In Your Ear Studios. The ICA Sessions will kick off Oct. 3 with a one-hour set of music by Yeni Nostalji, a local band that re-creates vintage Turkish pop among its mixture of genres.