Cathy Kimball

Art Direction at the ICA

For up-and-coming artists trying to establish themselves, there are few havens quite like the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. For over 30 years now, the ICA has been searching for new artists waiting to establish themselves, and their most recent successes have been under its current director, Cathy Kimball.

While she’s a part of the San Jose community now, Kimball was originally from the East Coast, where she worked at the New York State Museum and the New Jersey Center for the Visual Arts. When her husband got a new job out here, Kimball came upon a stroke of luck shortly after her arrival, where she met an old coworker from the New York State Museum who was now a curator at the San Jose Museum of Art. He informed Kimball that both his assistant curator and education director had resigned a month earlier and asked, “So when can you start?”

While at SJMA, Kimball kept ties to New York by working as a curator for collaborations with the Whitney Museum. It was in 2000 when the ICA, only 20 years old at the time, approached her about being the Institute’s new director. While the ICA had a long history of curatorial highs and financial lows, both were at a low point at the time. But to Kimball, it meant there was no place to go but up.

“The opportunity to come into a space and set a vision and really determine the path, the future path, for that place, was kind of exciting.”

Despite the schedule initially being a blank slate, Kimball set an aesthetic revolving around unrecognized artists who may not be particularly well-established, but who are still unquestionably high quality artists in the eyes of the curatorial staff. The staff collaborates heavily, with different curators proposing ideas and visiting studios of artists who may possibly show up in later exhibitions.

And along with opportunities to exhibit, the ICA provides opportunities for education, for both the art-loving community and for the artists themselves, who can see what other artists are doing local to the Bay Area or further away. For anyone who attends an ICA gallery exhibition or one of their panel discussions, there are chances to speak with both art collectors and the artists themselves, who are always around and love to discuss their processes and subject matter.

“Many of the artists who are in the ICA really are emerging artists, or under-recognized, mid-career. And that’s who I am most dedicated to. Especially those mid-career artists who really deserve to be recognized and have their work shown…but they haven’t marketed themselves to get the kind of shows that they deserve.”

In general, Kimball emphasizes the aspect of connecting with the art community. For members, there are various trips and other member perks, and the ICA’s aforementioned panel discussions can go very in-depth about the art on display, often expanding a two-paragraph label into an hour-and-a-half discussion of the work and its themes. They also offer an annual art auction, with up to 170 artists working in every imaginable medium.

“And whether you’re thinking that you want to start buying art for yourself, to surround yourself with beauty, or you really just want to learn more about art, that’s an excellent opportunity.”

Written by Jonny Keshishoglou
Photography by Daniel Garcia

Article originally appeared in Issue 5.3 “Act”

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