ICA, Boston

At a time when cultural organizations struggle to hold onto their audiences, the ICA is Boston’s greatest success story. Since opening in December 2006, attendance has boomed, making it the second most visited museum in the region. And a string of recent high-profile shows has done more than create foot traffic. The shows have changed the way Bostonians, traditionally more attuned to Sargent and Monet, look at contemporary art.

“Maybe it just took that landmark building to make people wake up,’’ said Susan Stoops, curator of contemporary art at Worcester Art Museum.

No show has had more impact than the current 250-plus-piece exhibition of work by the controversial street artist Fairey. Just last month, attendance passed 105,000, making it the most popular show in the ICA’s 73-year history. That came on the heels of well-received exhibitions featuring Bombay-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and Tara Donovan, who crafts objects out of Scotch tape, plastic buttons, and pins.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the Museum of Fine Arts, but if you go there, you won’t see any graffiti,’’ Sudbury’s Evan Berkowitz, 13, said after walking through the Fairey exhibition. “I like the ICA. It’s a nice break.’’

How has the ICA done it? By reaching out to the mainstream without alienating art world insiders. Chief Curator Nicholas Baume said the museum remains committed to giving attention to deserving artists who make important works. But he says he is also conscious of the need to build a new audience.

“Kapoor, Donovan, and Fairey are artists you don’t need to have a lot of experience going to museums and have an art history degree to really engage with and respond to,’’ he said.

Even some local gallery owners, critics, and curators who criticized the shows held just after the building’s opening in December 2006 have come around. They appreciated the work of Kapoor, known for his mirrored, bean-shaped installation, “Cloud Gate,’’ in Chicago’s Millennium Park. They also praised the solo exhibition featuring Donovan. In a fortuitous twist, two weeks before the show opened, Donovan was awarded a MacArthur genius grant.

“They’ve really hit their stride,’’ said Nick Capasso, senior curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.


Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe