Artistic Experimentation and Dialogue at the ICA at VCU: An Interview with Dominic Willsdon and David Riley


The Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at VCU is dedicated to fostering experimentation and dialogue within the realm of contemporary art. With a strong emphasis on engaging with current issues and trends, the ICA is a driving force in the Richmond arts conversation, particularly in its role as a bridge between VCU and the Broad Street Arts District.

In this interview, we speak with Executive Director Dominic Willsdon and Assistant Curator of Performance David Riley about their roles at the ICA and the organization’s mission. Dominic shares his background in the arts, having previously worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the ICA in London, UK, and explains why the multidisciplinary approach of the ICA format appeals to him. David, who has a background in the underground music scene in Richmond, discusses his role in curating performance programming and the challenges of choosing and reaching out to artists who align with the ICA’s mission.

I am here with David and Dominic at the ICA on Broad Street. Who are you and what do you do?

David Riley: My name is David Riley, and I am the Assistant Curator of Performance at ICA. I work with music, performance, theater, video, interdisciplinary artists, and artists that are hard to categorize. I would say experimentation is always happening here.

Dominic Willsdon: I’m Dominic Willsdon, the Executive Director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. I am responsible for the overall organization.

Dominic, how long have you been in this role?

Dominic Willsdon: I’ve been here for four years. I moved here in late 2018 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I was for 13 years.

And David, how long have you been here? Did you attend VCU?

David Riley: Yes, I was in the graduate program at VCU Arts for film and I started working here as a graduate assistant in the fall of 2018. My first project was community programming for the Rashid Johnson sculpture that was on the third floor at the time. It was a year of programs, with a new performance from somewhere in the community every week.

ICA Test Pattern
Photo by Keshia Eugene 

And from our past conversations, you were doing nightlife programming, throwing parties, and hosting events at night here in Richmond, correct?

David Riley: Yeah, the first time I ever came to Richmond to throw an event was to throw a rave on the north side. I won’t say where. That was my first introduction to Richmond and my life was sort of the DIY, underground music scene.

And Dominic, what appealed to you about this job? Had you been to Richmond before?

Dominic Willsdon: I had never been here before. What appealed to me was a few things. One is that I’ve always been interested in the format of Institute of Contemporary Art. There are other institutions like this around the country and even in other countries. I grew up with the ICA in London, UK. In fact, that was a formative venue for me in the 1990s. And part of what I like about the ICA format, as opposed to conventional museums, is the multidisciplinarity. So, the fact that it’s not necessarily exhibitions at the center of things, but exhibitions, performance, film, talks, publications, programming we do through the shop is interesting, the programming we’re about to do through the new version of the cafe counts as the program for me. So that kind of multi-channel approach to a cultural institution appealed to me. So that was a big reason I came here. The other was the context of VCU and a public university with an art school, and everything about Richmond that I’ve learned since.

ICA Test Pattern
Photo by Keshia Eugene 

Am I correct in saying that institutions like the ICA allow for more experimentation in terms of their programming? It seems like there is more structure in other institutions, like the VMFA.

Dominic Willsdon: I think so. I’ve previously worked at museums of the scale and type of the VMFA, strictly modern and contemporary art in my case in San Francisco and London before. And I think it’s fair to say that those institutions are necessarily and quite rightly centered on their collections. So the programming, including exhibitions, as part of the programming, and any experimentation within that has to sit around the core responsibility for the collection. So an ICA and put experimentation and the creation of new work as part of things.

Because there isn’t a permanent collection here, correct?

Dominic Willsdon: Correct.

And having looked at the programming from last year, there is a lot of experimentation in terms of music sonically and wrapped in some very difficult conversations. How do you choose or reach out to people to exhibit or perform here, David? What’s your criteria?

David Riley: My criteria is that it’s work that I find challenging or hard to categorize. And I want to know more about, I don’t feel like I completely understand. That’s actually where I come from. I also think about programming in terms of Richmond as a whole, the ecosystem of art here. So I try to program artists that I don’t think have been here or that you would see anywhere else. That’s what I’m aiming for.

And so, we come out of the pandemic and last year probably was the first year things got back to normal. How was the response to the programming you put in last year? And can you speak on what you’re trying to achieve this year?

David Riley: The response was great. The pandemic was a huge challenge for everyone. It was a challenge for museums in general, but most of all, it was a challenge for the performing arts. It still has not recovered to the degree we’re hoping. We’ve seen that everywhere across the city, across the country. So part of this is to support the performing arts in a meaningful way, and to bring something that people find unexpected, that makes them want to ask questions.

I think also with Test Pattern, that was a series that was designed to be hybrid because it was a very uncertain time. So it came out of that uncertainty. But also, that hybrid model makes sense for the media landscape where we find ourselves now, the fact that everyone’s constantly broadcasting themselves out into the world. And most people, especially young people, are trying to grapple with that and what that means.

In terms of music, I want to bring musicians here who wouldn’t have never played here before. Moor Mother had never played here before. Angel Bat Dawid, even though she has family from Virginia, had never played in Richmond before. So it’s just making those connections and bringing them for a longer time in a more meaningful way. So it’s not just a touring band who comes in on the bus for one night and leaves the next day. But they actually have time to get to know Richmond, they have time to get to know the staff here or to know other artists in the community. So, sort of like matchmaking?

ICA Test Pattern
Photo by Keshia Eugene 

I love that. Are you continuing Test Pattern this year?

David Riley: Yeah, there will be fewer, but there will be ten in total for our plan this year. Number seven will be in April with Holland Andrews, who is a composer and collaborator, and has collaborated with lots of amazing people. Son Lux being one, who scored Everything Everywhere All at Once. But they’ve collaborated with them and experimental positions. And they exist in between, I think, pop music experimentation, scoring, and opera. So a lot of what I’m interested in is people who take these traditional categories of music and throw them in the blender, so that they don’t fit into that category.

Photo courtesy of ICA

That speaks to Richmond’s DIY mindset. And having gotten to know you a little bit, it makes perfect sense. Dominic, can you speak on the ICA’s role in the community, especially being here in the arts district and being part of that? Or is that still being figured out?

Dominic Willsdon: Well, like everything, it’s being figured out all over again as we come out of the pandemic. And I know that’s what’s on your mind with what you’re asking.

Going back in time before my time, the creation of the ICA was located here because it was a site that could be connected to the arts district and to the campus of the University that is pointing the other direction. And the connection to the arts district is something I’m super interested in. We’ve committed, and this is largely via David’s program, to programming First Fridays, which as everyone knows, was the mainstay of the arts district activity for a long time, again, before my time. And I do really hope that the amazing spaces down West Broad Street here can thrive in new ways. We’ve partnered recently, for example, with 1708 Gallery for an exhibition together at both sites, and performances together. That’s something we could do again in other ways with other folks. There’s an extra dimension to it for us, because, as you may know, the site across the street will become, in the next few years, a new performing arts building for VCU School of the Arts, so that’s another VCU component of the arts district that’s going to come online before too long. So for sure, anything we can do working with others to generate energy around the arts district is going to be amazing.

ICA Test Pattern
Photo by Keshia Eugene 

Absolutely. A lot of people are very interested in that aspect of the ICA. The question that was asked to me to ask you both is, the artwork and exhibitions that you present can be very challenging. How do you make that approachable? What are the things that not only you guys, but we as media can do to help make these things approachable, and not seem unapproachable? Is that a fair question to ask?

Dominic Willsdon: Yeah, it’s a fair question to ask. In most cities, a lot of the work in the field of contemporary art, performance and other things is new and unfamiliar. As David just said, with his own programming, he’s doing it to find out what it can be in a way. So we’re all learning. We’re seeing something that’s happening right now, and part of what’s interesting to us is what we can learn about, about seeing what that can become. So for as long as I’ve been in this field, learning about the new has been the thing that’s kept me going really.

So one answer to your question is how can we encourage more and more people to be excited about the “new”, to be excited about what is unfamiliar and what they haven’t seen before. So that’s one thing we have to count on.

The other is, though, we do want to do more and more around providing context and information and educational materials and opportunities to accompany what we do.

I’ll plug that I’m launching a sort of an introduction to contemporary art series of classes next month, which I’m going to lead myself. So it’s called “Making Sense of Contemporary Art.” So that’s my plug. [laughs] That’s, we could do more and more stuff like that. But it’s, like I say, it’s partly about helping people understand what contemporary art is and it’s partly about encouraging people to be okay with not knowing yet because oftentimes, we don’t know yet either.

So come curious. [laughs]

Dominic Willsdon: Yes!

Photo by Kimberly Frost

David Riley: It’s a great question. But I think it depends on what you think of as challenging or inaccessible. I mean, you could go to the opera and be like, I don’t understand this. It’s another language. I’ve been to noise shows and some people might not enjoy them for various reasons. So you could ask this question in a lot of different places, not just contemporary art museums. But I think not knowing is part of the fun. But at the same time, as Dominic said, we like to add some context to what we’re doing. And in terms of Test Pattern, one of the things we’ve done is we’ve had these really great Q&A sessions afterwards, so you have access to the artists directly afterwards to ask questions like, “Why did you do that? What decisions went into making this work? How do you feel about this or that?” And those have always been really great, casual, but really informative and personal.

So I think it’s about bringing the personal into it, so it doesn’t seem so cold or academic all the time. There’s room for that, but I think that’s the sweet spot.

Dominic Willsdon: I was going to add to David’s first point there, that there are ways in which contemporary art is more accessible than historical art. In some of the museums I used to work for that included historical art, you have to explain what the world was like then, in order to really understand what the artists were showing. But here, it comes out of the world that we all share. And also, to your point, the people who produce this are here with us and we can talk with them.

ICA Test Pattern
Photo by Keshia Eugene 

Yes. You are dissecting the current conversation. These are things that alot of people are talking about it can be difficult for people to contextualize and understand how it affects their lives. That’s where the ICA role comes in – to challenge and start those conversations. As for programming, what do you hope people will find interesting and engaging besides Test Pattern?

David Riley: I would point everyone to our spring opening on February 24th. Normally, it’s an entirely new exhibition, but there will also be some exciting performances. Sadaf Nava and DJ Haram, who was part of 700 Bliss with Moor Mother, they come from the club scene, but they mix Middle Eastern influences with club music and noise. So I would point to that. There will be plenty of more experimental music throughout the year. I hope to see a music festival or something similar happen here in the future.

Dominic Willsdon: As for the exhibitions, the opening on February 24th is a group show curated by Sarah Rifky, who is the senior curator here called So it appears. And it is a show of abstraction in many different forms, but these abstractions contain secrets that keys aspects of our current social, political, and moral condition. It’s beautiful on the surface but has a lot of dark meaning underneath.

Looking further ahead, this week I’m going to Minneapolis to present a show from the Walker Art Center featuring recent MacArthur Fellow, Paul Chan. We’re trying to bring great shows from around the country for Richmonders can see those too.

I love it. Thank you for your time today.

For more information on the ICA and its programming:
Follow the ICA on Instagram: @icavcu

David Riley + Dominic Willsdon photos by Kimberly Frost
All other photos by Keshia Eugene 

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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