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.


Jeffrey Gibson’s site-specific commission, This Burning World, includes an immersive projection installation, from which the above image is derived.