Ali Gass is the founding director of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, where the tree in the background is part of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, This Burning World, by Jeffrey Gibson.
Jeffrey Gibson’s site-specific commission, This Burning World, includes an immersive projection installation, from which the above image is derived.

Ali Gass is the founding director of the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, where the tree in the background is part of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, This Burning World, by Jeffrey Gibson.
Alison Gass likens the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco to a rocket ship. “In retrospect,” she says, “it happened absurdly fast” — from its initial funding to opening on October 1. The noncollecting institution (i.e., it doesn’t own any art) really started to take shape in March 2021, after a conversation with gallerist Claudia Altman-Siegel. Of course, launching a museum from scratch requires money. Enter Andy and Deborah Rappaport, who provided $1 million in seed investment — which Gass enticed additional donors to match in less than two months — and assisted in securing a lease on an 11,000-square-foot space in Dogpatch. Although Gass has spent more than 15 years in the field — previously at SFMOMA, MSU Broad, Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and ICA San José — her latest role as ICA SF’s founding director presents an unprecedented opportunity, one that is artist- and equity-focused. A month prior to ICA SF’s debut, Gass took a break from helping to install an exhibition to reflect on the making of the City’s newest museum.
Your early backers include startup founders, such as Mike Krieger of Instagram, Cal Henderson of Slack and Ethan Beard of Yoz Labs, along with venture capitalists like Andy Rappaport and David Hornik. Have their experiences been beneficial to you? They have been invaluable. I have two groups of people who are my constant advisers and mentors. I have my museum director friends and colleagues. … But I’m almost not a museum director yet. In many ways, I feel like much more of a founder. It really is the founders and VCs who have been incredible mentors to me — everything from building a startup budget and scaling up, filing for our 501(c)(3), doing the construction project, getting a 401(k) plan started — all of that. Ethan and David have been critical people for me, real day-to-day partners. Those are the people I text morning, noon and night.
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What was your vision and mission? The pandemic and the racial reckonings of the summer of 2020 had shown me that museums and institutions that could move really quickly and take left turns and look to artists to helm projects that help respond to things that are shifting in the world — that felt the most exciting. … It’s a moment to really think about some course correction for institutions. To think about what it means to expand the canon for the future — to make it broad and inclusive, a canon of the artists that we need to be committed to showing, intersectionally diverse artists of all kinds. And to think about prioritizing the individuals who work in the institutions, perhaps over the architecture and the space. Maybe think about pulling back the curtain on the perfection that we sometimes expect from our institutions, and acknowledge that there’s a lot of labor — intellectual and physical — that goes on, and allow some of those last-minute moments of indecision or left turns that we make, to be visible. Oh, we made a mistake? We’re changing our minds. Transparency is a big thing that we talk about. We’ve really adopted this language of a startup museum — this idea of always being under construction, even as we come out of startup mode into operational mode.
Since you’re not acquiring or storing art, how will you use your annual $2.7 million to $3 million operating budget? We pay for programs, people and to maintain the building. We’ve chosen to do a light touch on the renovations, keeping it bare-bones, but the building has high rent. For the salaries for our staff, we’re trying really hard to be at or above the median of what the Association of Art Museum Directors’ salary survey tells us, in our region, at our budget model. We’re also paying the artists incredibly well, using W.A.G.E. Certification, which helps you understand how to pay artists and arts workers well. We also put money into exhibitions and programs.
Jeffrey Gibson’s site-specific commission, This Burning World, includes an immersive projection installation, from which the above image is derived.
And admission is free? Yes. The idea that the ICA is free means even more money needs to be raised. We don’t have an endowment or ticket sales. The future of the contemporary art world depends on people understanding that if you like a free museum in your city, and you have the good fortune to be able to give a little bit of money to support that, you sort of have to do that. Until the government or even corporations give more, the business model of American museums really does rely on individual giving. I’m not a professional fundraiser, but when I really believe in something, I understand how to find the right people who share my vision and values: “Hey, I have the great fortune to do this in my career, and you have the great fortune to do this as an important thing for society. Let’s come together and make it happen.”
You’re opening this month with Jeffrey Gibson’s site-specific This Burning World. And following that with Liz Hernández and Ryan Whelan’s A Weed By Any Other Name in December, and then next January, Resting Our Eyes, curated by Tahirah Rasheed and Autumn Breon. Was it a lot of pressure, deciding on the inaugural show? It was a no-brainer. We have a series of inaugural shows, so ICA San Francisco will be fully installed and inaugurated in January 2023. This Burning World is a major endeavor by a global rising star, a really significant voice in the contemporary art world. Jeffrey Gibson is an artist who blends Western modernization with Indigenous artistic practices and works across a variety of media. When I approached him, he said, “I want to think pretty critically about land acknowledgment. I’ve been wanting to open up the floor of an institution and expose the earth beneath it, but people are not wanting to let me do that.” I said, “We’ll let you do that. It’s just a warehouse and we’re not even finished with the floor.” For us, he is literally excavating … and making this incredibly intense, immersive video that’s 65 feet long. You’ll feel like you’re standing inside a Jeffrey Gibson painting. It’s a [Venice] Biennale–level project. 
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