In an East Boston Shipyard, a Watershed Idea for Art

Inside the new ICA Watershed, a former factory turned exhibition space retains its industrial feel. Diana Thater’s “Delphine” lets visitors enter an underwater world. Four light projections show wild dolphins in their natural habitat.

BOSTON — “People don’t usually get this vantage point,” said Jill Medvedow, the longtime director of the Institute of Contemporary Art here. She was in a water taxi plowing across Boston Harbor, looking back toward her museum hovering at the water’s edge in the Seaport area. When she moved the museum, founded in 1936, to this once-isolated neighborhood of South Boston in 2006, its innovative building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro was orphaned in a sea of parking lots.

Now the area is brimming with new construction, and Ms. Medvedow, 63, is leading her institution into another less-trammeled area. At the end of the six-minute boat ride, alighting on a dock in East Boston, Ms. Medvedow strode through an active shipyard and marina. Pointing to the facade of a squat structure sheathed in luminous polycarbonate, she pronounced, “Here’s our Watershed!”

It was formerly a copper pipe factory with a dilapidated roof and asbestos-filled garage doors at either end. Ms. Medvedow persuaded the Massachusetts Port Authority, the agency that operates nearby Logan Airport and public terminals, to lease the condemned, 15,000-square-foot space for monumental artist projects. It was given a new roof and was brought up to code by Anmahian Winton Architects.

On July 4, ICA Watershed will open with a dramatic video installation by Diana Thater. It’s accessible via a new ferry route negotiated by the museum to run from Memorial Day to Columbus Day between South Boston and the waterfront in Eastie, as locals call East Boston.

As museums grapple with escalating costs of building and operating huge expansions, Ms. Medvedow’s vision of a nimble seasonal space offers an alternative model of growth.

“It wasn’t about ownership; it wasn’t about another new building,” said Ms. Medvedow, who investigated the possibility of expanding the South Boston museum with a bridge into an adjacent office building before determining it was too costly. The price tag for ICA Watershed is a relatively modest $10 million for renovation and five years of programming.

Inside, the Watershed — which opens at the far end to the harbor — retains a raw industrial character, with train tracks still visible across the floor and an original masonry wall. “We wanted the architects to keep as much of the history as they could,” Ms. Medvedow said.

She was inspired in her search for a space when she saw the power of Kara Walker’s 2014 sculpture “A Subtlety” in the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Until now, Boston did not have a comparable venue for displaying art.

Another lure is the history of the shipyard, built after the founding of the East Boston Trade Company in 1833 brought new industries to the waterfront. It was once the second-largest point of immigration in America, after Ellis Island. A large Italian community remains, joined by an influx of refugees and immigrants from Central America. More than 50 percent of the population speaks Spanish. The waterfront and harbor, scene of the historic Boston Tea Party, provides a rich context for artists exploring issues from migration to trade to rising sea levels. The Watershed will have free admission, with all information provided in English and Spanish.

But with the museum poised to bring thousands of new visitors to a once-isolated part of the city, some residents are anxious about the project’s impact on accelerating gentrification. “Two blocks down from the Watershed, you’ll see a new complex being built, which is not going to go to the middle-class and blue-collar workers,” said Dublas Vasquez, 19, whose aunt has been pushed out by rising rents. But the museum has been working with his school, he said, getting him and his friends excited about teen programs there.

Civic leaders, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh, are monitoring its potential impact as well. “We’re seeing more investment in East Boston, which we’re keeping an eye on because we’re concerned about displacement,” said Mayor Walsh, a Democrat. But he sees Watershed as a boon to the community.

“Arts and culture bring out everybody,” he said. “It’s for the people that are well off, it’s for the poorer folks, it’s for the middle class.”

Ms. Medvedow, who watched the sleek glass towers and condos gobble up parking lots in the Seaport, sees a difference here. Massport has created parkland on the East Boston waterfront to protect public access. State regulations governing the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina allow only 25 percent of the property for non-water-dependent use.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts was not directly involved with Watershed but has been a champion of the museum’s role. “It’s important that East Boston’s evolution be integrated with the rest of Boston and that the vibrancy of Boston doesn’t leave East Boston residents out,” he said. He credited the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, for partnering with local groups like the Neighborhood Health Center, the East Boston Social Centers and Maverick Landing Community Services.

“It’s saying, this is yours, too,” he added. “That is all Jill.”

On a recent afternoon, workers were traversing the interior of the Watershed on scissor lifts. Ms. Thater, visiting from Los Angeles, was installing her 1999 video, “Delphine,” featuring huge underwater images of dolphins swimming with abandon in a four-sided projection angled across walls, floor and ceiling. “It is essentially a cube that’s been tilted,” Ms. Thater said. The twist in space mimics the torquing movement of the dolphins.

“Diana reorients how we typically experience moving images,” said Eva Respini, the museum’s chief curator, who selected Ms. Thater. In this immersive turquoise environment, visitors’ shadows merge with the silhouettes of dolphins as they swim up toward the sun. The artist has installed colored gels on a long thin skylight, to give museumgoers the sensation of walking through a rainbow.

“It makes this super-muscular space quite ethereal,” Ms. Respini said.

“Let’s make it girlie,” Ms. Thater said, smiling.

A pioneer of video installation art in the early ’90s, Ms. Thater explored the beauty and precariousness of the natural world throughout the exhibition. A dying monarch butterfly twitches across six screens on the floor. Majestic portraits of animals on the verge of extinction — elephants and the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, filmed in Kenya at sunset — roam on six-foot-high glass screens.

“I shot them at a magic hour because I wanted this feeling of eternity,” Ms. Thater said. “Their time is now so short.”

Ms. Medvedow said she hoped visitors would draw a poetic connection between the fragility of ocean life and the shipyard.

The daughter of a former alderman and chairman of the board of finance in New Haven, Ms. Medvedow has strong convictions about the marriage of art and civic life. She persuaded Thomas Glynn, chief executive officer of Massport, to sign on to what he called the “unorthodox elements” of this project. These included allowing the museum to use the dock five minutes away from the Watershed, in Piers Park, completed by Massport in 1995 in part to mollify long-simmering tensions among East Boston residents overLogan Airport. Mr. Glynn is partnering with the city on a future Piers Park II, which will add four and a half acres of green space along the shore. The Watershed “fits pretty neatly” with improving public access to the waterfront, he said.

The museum sponsors the private ferry service, a new mode of transportation on the harbor. By the second year of the Watershed, Ms. Medvedow hopes public ferry service will be in place. “That is one of my civic goals for this project,” she said, “so it’s not the job of a moderate-sized contemporary art museum to run water transportation.”

Sitting outdoors at a restaurant in the shipyard, Ms. Medvedow was describing the neighborhood when a young man listening from the next picnic table interjected. “Maritime life is going away with everything coming into the shipyard,” he said, somewhat confrontationally.

The director quickly introduced herself — “I’m Jill from the ICA” — and shook the hand of the man, who said his name was Dan. “We’re happy to join you over here and hope you will check us out.”

“I’m literally next door,” he said. “Just thinking about my job, that’s all.”

As he walked away, Ms. Medvedow said, “Everyone’s experiencing this from where they live.” She paused. “It’s not like they’re all believing in contemporary art as the great thing,” she added. “I’ve devoted my life to it, but it’s got to resonate.”

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