The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art was formed between 1973-1974 to provide a permanent exhibition venue for the visual contemporary arts in the Los Angeles area. The founding principle was to establish an arts organization that operated democratically and spoke with a multiplicity of voices. In order to remain flexible and minimize operating expense, LAICA did not establish a permanent collection.
Members of the Board of Directors included Peter Alexander, John Baldessari, Rosamund Felsen, Peter Plagens, Judy Spence, and other artists, gallery owners, and members of the art community. Committees that supervised exhibition programming and LAICA's published Journal were elected by members, and the duties of exhibition curator and periodical editor rotated among members, rather than being the responsibility of permanent staff. A registry of slides and biographical materials, begun in 1971, was open to submission by any Southern California artist. LAICA's first exhibitions were held in the fall of 1974, under founding director Robert Smith, a former curator at the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale, California. The first issue of Journal was published in June of the same year.
LAICA's first exhibition space consisted of 4,200 square feet on the fifth floor of the Century City complex. During the mid-1970s, the organization hosted numerous exhibitions and events - all were were well attended, despite the lack of parking and restrooms. Exhibitions focused on a wide variety of contemporary painting, sculpture, decorative arts, fashion, performance art, video, music, architecture, social issues, and public art. Exhibitions were curated by both LAICA staff and guest curators, including Walter Hopps. Desiring to expand their space, LAICA had hopes of Frank Gehry redesigning the Century City space. The institute, however, was forced to relocate after losing their lease.
In March of 1977, LAICA reopened in an 8,000 square foot facility on 2020 South Robertson Boulevard. In addition to their public programming, the organization created an Artist-in-Residence program with funding made available by the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA). By the end of the 1970s, LAICA was flourishing with increased budget and staff, and, by 1980, opened a second exhibition space at 815 Traction Avenue, referred to as the "Downtown Gallery." An additional storefront exhibition space in the Eastern Columbia building was donated by State Senator Alan Sieroty.
A decrease in public funding in the early 1980s forced LAICA to cut some of its public programs. The organization, however, still staged ambitious exhibitions, including one of contemporary Italian art that traveled to nine different venues, and a show of nine contemporary Australian artists in connection with the 1984 Olympics Art Festival.
Robert Smith resigned from his position as director in early 1985. Ben Marks, the former director of the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle, was hired that summer. By March of 1986, however, Marks had resigned and the Board of Directors decided to sell LAICA's South Robertson location. Faced with financial burdens and the lack of a permanent exhibition space, LAICA staged exhibits at temporary spaces around Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art officially closed in 1987 after thirteen years of operation.