Amy Sadao on Museums as the New Public Sphere

Jun 29, 2016

What role do art museums and exhibition institutions play in creating political dialogue? How is highlighting work by and about marginalized populations a form of social justice activism?

On episode 13 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with curator and director of the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art Amy Sadao about the role of art in social change, how ethnic studies informs Amy’s AIDS activism and curating practice, why we need more radical art and curators of color, and creating diverse community in Philadelphia.

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Guest: Amy Sadao

Amy Sadao is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. She is a respected contemporary art writer, juror and lecturer.

Amy advocates for art and culture’s essential role in civil society, and has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and on the BBC,, Channel 4, CBC, NY1, and WXPN.

Amy has been the recipient of several awards for her work notably the 2014 ArtTable New Leadership Award, named a Women in the Arts Leader by Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, and knighted by the Imperial Court of New York, the city’s oldest drag house for her work as an AIDS and art activist.

She serves on the board of directors of Denniston Hill, an artist residency program and is a Director Emeritus of Visual AIDS.

Amy began her arts career as a curatorial intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art and then as gallery coordinator for the Downtown Arts Festival. She earned an MA in comparative ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley and a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art.

We chatted about

  • How collaborations between art institutions and academic institutions can make the humanities more publicly available (02:30)
  • Utilizing contemporary art to create and maintain dialogue around HIV/AIDS (09:30)
  • Arts organizations as hosts of political dialogue (15:30)
  • How art can be a site for both individual inspiration and collective activism (16:15)
  • Why prioritizing art by and about marginalized populations is a priority for Amy (19:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (22:20)


The cultural responsibility of art museums

Museums should be a place where we can be in shared contemplation if not conversation about political issues. [Artistic] work can be that kind of agent.

The interconnectedness of art and activism

It’s wrong to create divisions between the thinking that we do around social justice and the thinking that we do around cultural production.

Amy’s goals as the director of a contemporary art museum

Changing what we show in the museum, changing who works in the museum, and changing who attends the museum—all of those are the big challenges that are essential to anything I’m directing.

The role of art in social change

Artwork can help us imagine a future that’s not here.

The responsibilities of curators and exhibiting institutions

We have a great responsibility to make sure that interpretative work is not overstepping the experience of being with the artwork itself, or the artist’s intentions.

Imagining otherwise

I imagine a world where art is recognized as something that is living and changing and shaping and helping us imagine another world.

More from Amy Sadao

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Hello, and welcome to episode 13 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Our lineup got changed a bit recently, so I apologize if there was any confusion. Sarah Gray was actually episode 12, and this is episode 13.

Cathy Hannabach (00:36):

Today my guest is Amy Sadao. Amy is the director of the Institute for Contemporary Art. She’s a respected contemporary art writer, juror, and lecturer. Amy advocates for art and culture’s essential role in civil society, and has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and on the BBC,, Channel 4, CBC, NY1, and WXPN.

Cathy Hannabach (01:04):

Amy has been the recipient of several awards for her work, notably the 2014 ArtTable New Leadership Award. She was named a woman in the arts leader by Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council. And she was actually knighted by the Imperial Court of New York, the city’s oldest drag house, for her work as an AIDS in art activist. She serves on the board of directors at Denniston Hill, an artist residency program, and she’s the director emeritus of Visual AIDS.

Cathy Hannabach (01:34):

Amy began her art career as a curatorial intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and then continued on as a gallery coordinator for the Downtown Arts Festival. She earned an MA in comparative ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art.

Cathy Hannabach (01:53):

Hi, Amy. Thanks for being with us.

Amy Sadao (01:55):

Oh, glad to finally get a chance to talk to you, Cathy. Thanks so much for thinking of me for this podcast.

Cathy Hannabach (02:01):

So, you’re the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, which is just a fantastic resource here in Philadelphia, and online around the world. So I’d love for you to tell our listeners just what kind of work you do there, and what kind of events, and artists, and projects does the ICA feature?

Amy Sadao (02:18):

Thanks so much. It is an amazing institution that’s been promoting contemporary work for over 50 years now, and I’ve been honored to be the director here for the last three years. So, the Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA, is part of the University of Pennsylvania. And it’s an unusual museum, because we are more functioning like a Kunsthalle, in that we don’t have a collection. So that enables ICA to really focus on the work of artists working right now, and to deal with the issues that we really feel are urgent.

Amy Sadao (02:54):

And, I guess as an extension of that ability, ICA really focuses on unknown works, on the things that haven’t yet been digested by criticism, or by the market. We’re fond of saying that we look where artists look, and that we want to continue to be a very artist-centric institution. And in that way, we want to make sure that we can help artists move to a place that’s unknown for them, as well.

Amy Sadao (03:28):

Even if we’re doing a survey exhibition of an artist’s work showing, say, 50 decades of work, we’re also compelled to assist that artist in making new work, and responding to new ideas and new challenges.

Amy Sadao (03:43):

So, the exhibition program and our public events are always changing, so you’re always going to see something new when you come over to 36th Street and Sansom in Philadelphia. And a lot of that is available online. And I think that it’s worth mentioning that ICA’s emphasis on exhibition and working with contemporary artists also incorporates the ways in which we present performance work, and public events that help us think about and share the ideas that are circulating in the galleries, as well.

Amy Sadao (04:19):

We have a really robust publications department, or program is more correct. And I think that has a lot to do, again, with being a non-collecting institution. The ideas of how you create history, as well as how you create a space to reflect critically on what’s happening in the museum really becomes much more important. And I think that you can see over the last several years, in fact, that our publications have even grown in depth and in the scope of what they cover. And that just has to do with our curatorial team being incredibly bookie folks.

Cathy Hannabach (05:00):

It seems like being paired with Penn, with the university, gives you some of that research background. It certainly gives you some of the staffing, or bodies, or training that a lot of museums don’t have access to, or have to forage through other means.

Amy Sadao (05:19):

I came to the museum, and to working at Penn, really excited about the potential of partnering with all of these other thinkers in so many different fields. And that’s something that we work on constantly. It’s a lot harder, I think, to do than you might imagine from the outside.

Amy Sadao (05:39):

And I feel like the relationship with Penn to the museum is really ideal. While the museum supports itself, maybe a third of our budget comes directly from the university. But everything else we’re responsible for. The ideas around academic freedom really influenced the relationship between the university and ICA, so that there is no interest at all in dictating or even suggesting about what kinds of things we program, and who we bring, and what kinds of projects we commission, and the work that is shown here and discussed here.

Amy Sadao (06:18):

So it’s really more of being able to have the setting inside this great research institution, and try and capture the attention of this rotating student body. But it’s also something I think that Penn, like many private universities, strives for, which is to provide a forum for making our culture, the humanities at large, more publicly available.

Amy Sadao (06:44):

And because ICA, through the generous sponsorship of donors here, is able to be admission-free with everything we do. So every event, every opening, all the galleries, there’s never admission here. It’s nice to think of ICA as really a public space on a private university campus, and a place for Philadelphians and area visitors, as well as international travelers, can intersect and be in contact with folks out of the Penn community.

Cathy Hannabach (07:20):

So you’re the director of ICA. Can you give us a little bit of a behind the scenes look at what your average day looks like, if you could think of such a thing? Or maybe average week, or month.

Amy Sadao (07:34):

Before I was here, I was the director of an organization called Visual AIDS, which was a much smaller venture, and an extraordinary place which we can talk about later. But I remember being asked this question about that job. And it’s so hard to say what’s going to be…

Amy Sadao (07:50):

There’s the structure that’s there and if you have nine meetings a day, that can range from meeting with a Penn alum who’s interested in contemporary art that I would like to introduce to our program, to meeting with my staff, the six directors of the different departments talking about a new marketing initiative. Or literally looking at advertisements, or outdoor ads that we’re working with our design team on with my director of communications. And then talking to the director of public engagement about two projects that she’ll be putting together for the summer, and who the audience is going to be for those.

Amy Sadao (08:28):

And then, swinging by the chief curator’s and looking at a variety of new projects that our colleagues have sent us information on. And then talking to a board of directors from around the country. And also then greeting two different groups who’ve come to the museum to see current exhibitions, and giving them both background on the museum, as well as introductions to the shows.

Amy Sadao (08:56):

The great days are also days when there’s artists in the museum. And getting to sit down and talk with them is such a rare occurrence, and one, for me, it happens never enough. There’s never enough of that for me, though there’s always artists here working with our curatorial team.

Cathy Hannabach (09:17):

So you mentioned Visual AIDS. What is… And I’m a huge fan of it, and it seems like such a natural transition for you, coming from Visual AIDS and the work that you did there to ICA. So, can you tell our listeners who maybe aren’t as familiar with it, what is that fabulous organization and what do they do?

Amy Sadao (09:37):

Sure. Visual AIDS is an independent arts organization that’s been around for over 30 years now. And it was founded in the ’80s by a group of arts workers who worked almost immediately with a bunch of artists. And their mission was to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to use their positions within the art world to do so.

Amy Sadao (10:02):

And they were interested in the impact of AIDS at large, not just on the arts community. But Visual AIDS has really worked to continue basically utilizing contemporary art in its broadest form to keep the dialogue going around HIV and AIDS. And so, that has changed enormously, as we know, from the ’80s to now because of the advent of antiretroviral drugs, and a lot of political change that came about because people fought for it.

Amy Sadao (10:38):

And Visual AIDS also has a really unique archive. They archive the work with photo documentation of HIV-positive artists, and that is completely uncurated. So, it’s a really strange collection of work by this huge range of really well-known artists, completely unknown artists, basically all self-identified as artists and people who are living with HIV.

Amy Sadao (11:06):

So, there’s no other connection between their work. But I think that it’s a very powerful political statement, and you can go to and just lose days of your life looking through this amazing archive of work from three decades of the pandemic. And the organization is very small. It was two people when I worked there, and now it’s three people. And they have an office in New York, and, I don’t know, everything they do is so exciting.

Amy Sadao (11:38):

It was a transitional time when I was there for a decade. A lot of AIDS organizations and AIDS advocacy were going through changes in the ’90s and early 2000’s. But there’s an incredible feeling of community that surrounds that organization, and it has to do a lot with honoring the memories and work of people we’ve lost to AIDS. And also a continued level of commitment to activism around AIDS.

Amy Sadao (12:22):

And also a real spirit of intergenerational exchange that I think a lot of queer and transcultural producers of a generation younger than me were looking for, and that surprised the two generations above me who were very much AIDS advocates and AIDS activists. That there was an interest in creating that kind of intergenerational dialogue. And a lot of it comes out of understanding that a whole generation of people has been lost, and that a whole generation of people was living with really intense trauma. Not to mention that we’re all still living with AIDS.

Cathy Hannabach (13:11):

So you mentioned activism, and I’d love to hear you expand a little bit on that. How do you see your work combining activism, art, and academia in the service of social justice?

Amy Sadao (13:24):

I’m not teaching, and I’ve never really been a teacher. And I’m not a researcher, so I don’t really feel like I have a lot of influence in the scope of academia. But I feel that it’s, for me, working in contemporary art is working in culture. And that all of the things that we do in our social justice work, those concerns can also be explored through the artwork that artists are presenting, and the ways in which we talk about it.

Amy Sadao (14:03):

That’s not to discount the work that one does as a political actor, either with small groups or a larger political work. And just because we work in the art doesn’t mean, “Oh, we’re taking care of all of our political activism there.” But I think that it’s wrong to create divisions between the thinking that we do around social justice and the thinking we do around cultural production. Does that sound [crosstalk 00:00:14:36], Cathy?

Cathy Hannabach (14:36):

Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Amy Sadao (14:37):

I think museums should be a place where we can be in shared contemplation, if not conversation about political issues. And that the work can be that kind of agent. And that artists themselves are political actors and are interested in responding to the present, and helping us imagine a future that’s not here.

Amy Sadao (15:09):

And of all of the public institutions, of which there are not that many, in our culture, in our society, arts organizations really can be this public space where people from a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different political stripes could actually engage with each other. And that’s a huge project.

Amy Sadao (15:31):

It’s way easier to say that, and then to see events shape events, and projects, and environments, to invite these broad swaths of folks to come together. And it has a lot to do with a commitment to programming, too, and whose work we’re showing, and why we’re showing it.

Cathy Hannabach (15:51):

You have obviously a very long history of combining art and activism in different communities. But your work also is a really great example of how art can be used both for individual healing, or individual inspiration, but always coupled with collective collaborative work towards social change.

Cathy Hannabach (16:14):

So that, what is often positioned as a tension between the individual artist and the collective, or the community, to which they may or may not feel responsible. But your work really demonstrates that these things are best used together, right?

Amy Sadao (16:31):

Well, yeah-

Cathy Hannabach (16:31):

Sorry, go ahead.

Amy Sadao (16:32):

Oh no, no. Please, finish.

Cathy Hannabach (16:34):

Well, I was just going to ask you more about that. Do you see ICA interested in that relationship, the individual artist in relationship to community? I know you have so many community-based events, but even when you do have individual artists who are presenting their individual work, they’re always rooted in community activism, or community issues. Or you bring in members of the community either to participate in some aspect of making the work, or to participate in celebrating the work. There seems to be this interface there.

Amy Sadao (17:09):

I think those are the opportunities that we, as cultural producers and museum workers, and arts educators, whatever it is, have, which is to both respond to individual artists’ projects and the way that they link up, and to create a context for them, both physically and critically. And then, to find and create avenues for different people to have experiences with that work.

Amy Sadao (17:44):

And also, I think, to really draw out ways… The biggest challenge, and I think the thing that’s most exciting is to draw out ways for people who may not self-identify as being contemporary art fans, or being interested in exploring the unknown in a contemporary art museum. But who have their own intelligences, and their own experiences, and their own cultural vocabulary.

Amy Sadao (18:13):

And whatever we can do to point back to that, the individual’s knowing, and to create then the links between that and what an artist is sharing with us. And an understanding of how to view that, and contemplate that, and draw that together, draw those questions out. That’s the most challenging, but the most exciting potential for what museums and all arts exhibiting institutions can do.

Amy Sadao (18:44):

We have a great responsibility to the artist to make sure that the interpretive work is not overstepping the experience of being with the artwork itself, and/or the artist’s intentions. So, that’s always a balance I think that happens between what the curators do, and what the museum does in terms of welcoming different visitors and hoping to change their experience.

Cathy Hannabach (19:19):

I say one of the reasons why I really love the various exhibitions that you do and the events that you do is you seem to prioritize, maybe not officially, but in practice, perhaps, art by, and about, and in community with marginalized populations. You have a huge number of queer artists, of women artists, of trans artists, of artists of color, of artists who might not necessarily get their work shown in other kinds of spaces for all kinds of reasons.

Cathy Hannabach (19:54):

Do you see that as a primary goal of yours? And if so, does that come from you? Does that come from ICA? Does it come from some combination thereof?

Amy Sadao (20:05):

Yes. Absolutely, yes.

Cathy Hannabach (20:06):

All of the above?

Amy Sadao (20:09):

All of the above. I think that that’s always a priority for me. This is the work that I respond to. These are the histories that I want to see extended and shared. These are the questions that I want to explore. And the curatorial team, and I think everyone who works in this museum, recognize that and are here because those are their shared goals, as well.

Amy Sadao (20:37):

And I think that we are a unique institution with incredible support from extremely open-minded sources and individuals, that we can continue to explore this, because our mission is to really go beyond what collegial institutions are already doing. So that if there’s already explorations of this artist, or these sort of themes that are out there circulating, then it’s not going to happen here. So we want to dig a little bit deeper. And that we want to spend the time and the resources to develop those relationships with the artists to give them opportunities to move further.

Amy Sadao (21:15):

But yes, absolutely, I think it’s an institution-wide concern. And I think it extends to trying for me, now that I’m a museum director, for trying to change, as well, demographic, racial, sexual orientation, gender, demographics of who works inside museums. Because I think that that will also impact who can feel like they call the museum their own. Who feels like they have ownership participation in the museum.

Amy Sadao (21:47):

And so, changing what we show in the museum, changing who works in the museum, and changing who attends the museum, who really feels that this is their cultural organization, all of those are the big challenges. Those challenges, I think, are essential to anything that I’m directing or leading. And I love the team that I have here and the way that they embrace that, as well.

Cathy Hannabach (22:17):

So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which is the entire impetus behind this podcast. So, this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and it really focuses on people’s versions of a better world, that world that they’re working towards when they direct their art exhibitions, when they teach their classes, when they write their books. When they create whatever it is that they create in the world. So, I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want?

Amy Sadao (22:49):

One where contemporary art is really considered an essential part of a great civil democratic society. And that the exchange there is embraced across the board, and is valued. I think not only from a funding perspective, but from a participatory perspective, that people feel like it’s like almost their citizen’s responsibility to engage artists and art of our time.

Amy Sadao (23:15):

And that art is recognized not as paintings that are valued by money, by artists who are long dead, but as something that’s living, and changing, and shaping, and helping us imagine another world. And that, to use your words, that marginalized artists and their histories, and their work can transcend ideas about talking about identity, too, and really take on a different type of imagination, a different type of commentary.

Amy Sadao (23:51):

But that that’s an expectation across the board that people from all stripes are welcomed in cultural institutions. And that the cultural institutions themselves really see themselves responding to the full demographic of, say, just in America, in the United States, the full demographic of our citizenry. And that it’s not removed from a lived political experience.

Amy Sadao (24:22):

And that’s not to say that galleries and museums can’t be a place that’s a little bit removed from daily life that we might step into to spend 40 minutes with a video work that’s really very different than anything else we do, and that has a certain meditative quality to it. It has a certain reflective quality to it. I think those are also hallmarks of great art. The novels that can transport us, the music and the artwork that give us this chance to step out of our every day and reflect through a different lens, or imagine.

Amy Sadao (25:05):

Because it’s such a huge part of my life, and a huge part of the lives that I share with a variety of communities, I really feel that it’s what I want for everyone. That sort of richness, and a way to stretch outside of our regular thinking. And a way to… I’ve used this word before, but reflect, even I think in ways that we don’t think about, in ways that are new, and unknown, and even uncomfortable for us.

Amy Sadao (25:47):

And it’s also a way to enjoy, to experience pleasure, both individually and together. And that that pleasure is intellectual. That that pleasure is probing. And that these experiences with art build on each other. That over time, the more that we see, the more that we read, the more that we take in, the more we create relationships and can reflect back on things that we hated when we first saw them, but now we understand them differently through a different timeframe.

Amy Sadao (26:22):

And these are things that happen over years. And I really believe that that relationship with art can lead to so much, that in my ideal world, it would simply be more essential in all of our lives. And that all of our lives would reflect an ability to spend time with contemporary art, and all of our institutions would work towards making that a priority, as well. Not just our arts institutions.

Cathy Hannabach (26:56):

Well, thank you so much, Amy, for being with us on the podcast.

Amy Sadao (27:01):

This is so thrilling.

Cathy Hannabach (27:02):

This has been fantastic.

Amy Sadao (27:02):

I hope to see you at ICA, and your listeners at ICA soon. And I think that that’s really an important part of changing institutions, as well, is really just showing up and participating in those institutions. So we’re programming, I think, an extremely diverse slate of artists and ideas, and I hope that your audience will join us.

Cathy Hannabach (27:26):

Me too.

Amy Sadao (27:27):

Thanks. Talk to you soon.

Cathy Hannabach (27:29):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes…

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