Zoë Ryan lands in Philadelphia from the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the early 2000s, Zoë Ryan would catch a bus in Manhattan and ride into Philadelphia for openings at the Institute of Contemporary Art. She still vividly remembers those visits: walking among clothes by Rudi Gernreich, a fashion maverick in the 1960s and ’70s; studying Polly Apfelbaum’s “fallen paintings” sprawled across floors; examining detailed works from artists, designers, and architects in a show called Intricacy.
Recently Ryan found the catalogues for those and other past ICA shows while cleaning out her office at the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s been a curator there since 2006, but now it’s time to pack up and leave. This fall, she’s heading back to Philadelphia and the ICA—only this time, she’ll be there as the museum’s new Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director.
“The ICA is a place that I’ve long admired and watched from afar,” Ryan says. “I really like how its mission has long been about incredibly diverse narratives, making underrecognized artists better known, and really broad cross-disciplinary practices. These are all things that have been at the core of my own work and interests too.”
At the Art Institute of Chicago, Ryan rose from curator of design to the chair and curator of architecture and design in just five years. She’s organized major exhibitions, served on the curatorial advisory committee for the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 and 2018, and was named one of 50 people who are shaping the future of design by Fast Company in 2012.
“Zoë Ryan embodies our great Penn spirit of wide-ranging curiosity, of informing contemporary practices with their deep roots in history and theory, and of understanding how art profoundly impacts—and is profoundly impacted by—its social contexts,” Provost Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 said in a prepared statement. “Her vibrant scholarship and inclusive leadership will make her a transformative leader of ICA.”
The ICA’s most recent director, Amy Sadao, stepped down last fall after seven years leading the museum.
“The ICA is in incredibly good shape—I’m inheriting an institution that is really well regarded,” Ryan says. Still, with a start date of November 5, she arrives at a tumultuous time in the museum world (and the world in general). Just as it struck countless jobs and sectors, the global pandemic forced many US museums to shut down last spring. After being closed to the public in March, ICA began welcoming visitors again on September 26.
“It’s an incredibly challenging moment, but I remain positive and optimistic,” Ryan says. “People crave the arts and are hungry for those experiences. I’m excited for [ICA] to be part of the larger reopening of the campus. And of course, we’ll create an environment that makes people feel safe with all the necessary protocols in place.”
Fresh off of the Art Institute’s push to expand its online content—including digitizing images of the collection, and mounting extra photography and videos—Ryan also hopes to increase ICA’s digital offerings.
Growing up in England, Ryan often found herself around professional artists. They were the people her parents gravitated toward as friends, and as a result, Ryan spent countless hours visiting art studios and listening to artists talk about their practices. She moved to the US in 1998 after graduating from the University of Sussex with a bachelor’s in art history, and began an internship in the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department. Soon she decided she wanted to stay not just in the museum world but in the US too.
From 2000 to 2006, Ryan was a curator and editor for the Van Alen Institute, a not-for-profit in Brooklyn whose exhibition slate at the time included shows built around urban air quality, the post-9/11 Lower Manhattan landscape, and the intersection of public space and recreation on the Hudson River. “It was a really incredible moment,” she remembers. “We were doing huge, public competitions with the city, and we were the first organization to do public programming on Governors Island.”
But eventually Ryan left for Chicago, eager to learn how a large museum mounts major exhibitions and builds its collection. During her 14 years at the Art Institute, she helped organize numerous shows. She counts her last one as a highlight.
In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury presented work from artists and designers (all women) who lived or worked in Mexico between the 1940s and 1970s. “For me, it was really an opportunity to set the record straight,” Ryan says. She wanted to emphasize Mexico’s contributions to modern and contemporary art while also underscoring “the idea of ambitious migration to Mexico—something that if we only read headlines of recent years, we might not think about,” she says.
More generally, In a Cloud “brought together a lot of my own thinking about place, about interdisciplinary practice, and about bringing together a group of practitioners to suggest ideas and alternative thinking about a place and these fields of practice,” Ryan says.
In 2015, she co-curated the first large-scale museum survey of architect David Adjaye’s work. At the time, Adjaye was working on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, DC, in September 2016. “That became the centerpiece of the exhibition,” Ryan says, “since all of his work is about creating spaces and monuments and places where we can discuss issues of race, social injustice, social equity, and of course, the African American experience.”
Ryan says the Mexico and Adjaye exhibitions both reflect “issues and ideas that I’m really interested in bringing to the ICA.” And she’s looking forward to meeting and chatting with artists, just as she’s been doing since childhood.
“When I was starting out on my career path, I remember my mum saying to me, ‘Zoë, this isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle,’” Ryan says. “What I do is so embedded in my life. Nothing feeds me more than the conversations I have with artists and designers. You just learn so much about the world, about where we’ve come from, about where we might be headed. It’s an incredibly enriching experience to be in this field, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” —Molly Petrilla C’06