Photo by Ash Daniel
Scheduled to open in 2015, Virginia Commonwealth University's $35 million Institute for Contemporary Art will be headed by Lisa Freiman, whose job starts July 1. Plucked from the positions of senior curator and chair of the contemporary art department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Freiman helped raise more than $10 million to support the IMA's programs; oversaw the opening of 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park; and served as U.S. commissioner for the 2011 Venice Biennale.
RM: How did you get introduced to art, and when did you know this was your career path?
LF: As a kid my parents took me into [New York City] to see dance and theater, museums with my mom, and I loved the energy of the city, how huge the world became once I learned what existed there. I thought I was going to become an artist, while at the same time I loved literature. At 15, I was really bored, I started taking the train to the city a lot by myself. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, they offered classes to high schoolers. And I started meeting students based in the city, and that opened my life incredibly. It also made me understand I didn't want to go to a standalone arts school but one with a liberal-arts combination because I love literature and history, but this was a bit before the time when high schools taught art history. I chose Oberlin in Ohio because it's a big arts school, including a famous music conservatory, with small classes taught by professors, not grad students. This was back in the 1980s ― students today are a bit more precocious and career-minded ― and I was waiting for lightning to strike. Then my favorite drawing and painting teacher, Sarah Schuster, sat me down to say you just have to choose something, and work really hard at it: You can be a really good artist, or you can be a really good art historian. But there won't be any lightning.
RM: Was Richmond pulsing toward you through the artists coming out of the city into the world, long before you knew you were coming here?
LF: It very much felt that way. I've had the opportunity to work with artists from there, Kendall Buster, Sonya Cark, Tara Donovan. I could see that VCU recognizes the importance of art and prioritizes it in the university — other universities have art schools, but it's not emphasized in the tremendous way it is there. It felt like I was very aware of what's going on in Richmond and was excited by it, and even so much so [that] last year I got an invitation from the VCU faculty as an outside juror for the undergraduate exhibition. I wound up coming there for that process amid the second and third interview sessions for the job. This gave me a real sense for the school of the arts and Richmond, talking to the students and the faculty, the kind of work they're exploring. This is not typically the experience you get during the interview process. The time there gave me a sense of the pulse of the place, and going to dinner at the great restaurants ― I could really picture myself there.
RM: Part of your job, it seems, will be to understand how to fit the ICA — designed for exhibitions and performances — into an arts constellation full of galleries and museums.
LF: All of these pieces — the galleries, the incredible Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the ICA, artists' studios and spaces that are for artists and the public, these elements build on themselves, create excitement. When these things work well together, you can really make a bigger impact. … The ICA's role is essentially to focus on cutting-edge exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists who haven't shown in Richmond, [and] performances and presentations that catch the moment.
- At the 2011 Venice Bienniale, Freiman worked with the art/life partners Guillermo Calzadilla and UR grad Jennifer Allora, whose work included Track and Field , featuring an upside-down 52-ton tank and a treadmill.
- Freiman and her husband, Ed Coleman, have two daughters, Michaela, 9, and Tess, 7.
Note: This article has been corrected since publication.