ICA Miami’s motorcycle-riding director builds communities and breaks glass

Ellen Salpeter wears a Givenchy dress and Go Big or Go Home jewelry with her motorcycle in front of 'Dr. Pepper,' a sculpture by local artist Mark Handforth, in the garden of the newly relocated Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photograph by Nick Garcia.

Ellen Salpeter, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, spoke with INDULGE about the newly relocated museum and its role in Miami’s arts scene for the magazine’s 2017 Art Basel issue

Ellen Salpeter’s Vitals

57. Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Salpeter was born in New York to entrepreneur parents: Her father specialized in turning around dying businesses, and her mother owned a boutique. Exposed to the visual arts from a young age — Salpeter fondly remembers trips to MoMA — she pursued a work-study position at the Smithsonian while studying international management at Georgetown University. Her mother’s boutique happened to be on Miracle Mile, and Salpeter lived in South Florida for a year before moving to Paris and working with an attorney who represented the likes of Pierre Cardin and Serge Gainsbourg. In the late 1980s, she left traditional legal work and returned to her roots in the arts, moving back to New York to work for a commercial gallery. Since then, Salpeter has forged a career leading museums and cultural nonprofits, promoting the arts’ unmistakable role in civil society. In 2015, to lead ICA, she made Miami her home once again. Salpeter lives in Brickell with her adopted 12-year-old daughter, Hikma, while her 22-year-old son, Odediah, visits on breaks from Lehigh College.

Ellen Salpeter ICA Miami Institute of Contemporary art museum basel design district
Ellen Salpeter is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photograph by Nick Garcia.INDULGE


Claim to Fame

Helming the newly relocated ICA Miami, a cultural anchor in the Miami Design District that boasts more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and an outdoor sculpture garden.

First Paying Job

“I worked as a chambermaid once. That’s the person who cleans up the beds at a hotel. We were 16, 17. It was summer employment.”

Taking the Gig

“I like to consider myself a builder and someone who takes something to the next level. And the opportunity to get in early at the ICA was thrilling. Being able to work with such an extraordinary board, which we’ve expanded since I’ve been here, as well as Alex Gartenfeld, who is a curator on the rise, was very enticing.”

No Comparison

“I don’t do the ‘New York or Miami?’ thing. New York offers a 24/7 hustle kind of vibe, while Miami allows you the respite and space and time to actually get engaged with things that matter.”

‘I love the sound of breaking glass. I think it’s symphonic.’

Salt Life

“I finally went out this past July 4th on my first boat ride in Miami. We spent the day going up the Miami River, discovering the Miami Marine Stadium and visiting Stiltsville. I think those bits of Miami that are off the beaten path are what make the city unique.”

Open-Door Policy

“My career has been institutional, but it’s also been about community building. We’re very committed to free admission and access for everyone, and using this building as a platform for the arts that’s built into a community.”

Cultural Awakening

“Now is the moment where if you come to Miami, you don’t have to recreate. You don’t have to go to the beach necessarily. You could spend five days here seeing art and mixing it up with shopping and outdoor activities. We are competitive now on a level with other important arts cities. And thanks to the Knight Foundation, more and more artists themselves, the cultural producers, are coming here.”

Critical Thinking

“One of the things that makes a cultural capital vibrant is a very robust university system. Our thought was, as a small institution, how can we dip our toe in that water? So we founded the Art + Research Center in tandem with FIU, which will offer critical theory seminars in the contemporary arts. FIU students occupy half the slots, but the program is open to anyone with an interest.”

Greatest Accomplishment

“My children are part of my world in a very significant way, but my greatest professional accomplishment is being a generous person. And I don’t mean handing out money. I mean having a generosity of spirit and paying it forward, helming organizations and setting them free. Making an impact and bringing people together.”

Greatest Extravagance

“Traveling via motorcycle. My last trip was riding 1,000 miles through the Berkshires and the Catskills. A number of years before that, I rode west on Route 6 through Pennsylvania and New York all the way to Cook Forest, which is one of the oldest forests in the country.”

What People Don’t Know

“I love the sound of breaking glass. I think it’s symphonic. I don’t serve stemware in my house — I always have an urge to toss it.”

Personal Motto

“I have a photograph that effectively says, ‘Some things will be OK, but not everything will.’ It’s really what I believe in life. Focus on the priorities. Get over the things that don’t matter as much. Learn from them instead.”


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