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What is the ICA for?

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Will Gompertz | 13:00 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010

There is a corridor running east to west along the seventh floor of Tate Modern. On the southern side is a whitewashed wall into which the occasional door has been embedded. It could not be plainer, and with good reason.

Along the entire northern side is a wall of glass with a lucidity which allows for one of the finest views of London the capital has to offer. On a clear day, with the outline of St Paul's Cathedral cut from the sky as if by a pair of razor-sharp scissors, the glass wall frames a picture as good as any hanging within the building.

St Paul's

It was on such a day roughly six years ago when I was ambling along this corridor, taking in the view, that I received a call asking my opinion regarding the appointment of a new artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Did I think Ekow Eshun, the journalist, editor and cultural commentator, would be a good appointment?

Ekow EshunI said that I thought he would. That if given the support of a managing director to deal with the day-to-day bureaucracy, Ekow would, I felt, bring fresh ideas and direction to a place that had once played the swell host to London's avant-garde, but had since become a lost and bewildered soul. Ekow could give the ageing ICA a much-needed hip replacement.

Ekow got the job and a managing director to support him, but has found the going tough. And now, after five years or so in the director's chair, he's off, saying that a mixture of withdrawing sponsors and forthright senior staff made it impossible for him to achieve his artistic aims. But what were they? What could they possibly have been? To ask a question so often posited it's becoming a cliche: what is the point of the ICA?

Founded in 1947 by Herbert Read as a place for artistic experimentation and playfulness, the ICA has become an earnest multi-disciplinary art centre with two galleries, two cinemas, a theatre, reading room, bookshop and cafe.

Today the public's interest in contemporary arts is at a heightened state with multitudes visiting contemporary art galleries, attending festivals, reading new fiction, watching movies and processing alongside articulated elephants. Yet, amid this clamour for all things contemporary, the ICA has lost its lustre.

The zeitgeist has long since packed its bag and left only to pitch up down the road at the Serpentine Gallery, or at Tate Modern, or at the Whitechapel, or at White Cube, or at Rough Trade Records or at numerous club nights, fringe theatres, independent bookshops or small cinemas. And that's just London.

The ICA not only missed this contemporary arts wave, but has been drowned by it. Why? Maybe it was the weight of its own reputation, like members of a venerable pop group peering at their navels trying to re-invent the old magic while a younger, funkier, self-confident generation blasts through them.

ICAOr perhaps being sandwiched between Jay Joplin's White Cube and Tate Modern squeezed the life and purpose out of the place. It certainly needed to react to the new arts scene, to establish its new role in a changing ecology.

The ICA hasn't failed as such. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, has mounted some critically-acclaimed shows and has continued to experiment. But it hasn't succeeded either. Its financial problems and its staff's low morale are common knowledge. But the main problem is the same one it has struggled with for some time: what is its purpose?

I was working at the Tate when I took the call asking me about Ekow's suitability for the ICA job. At the time, the seventh-floor corridor seemed to me to capture in architectural terms the museum's stated vision to show modern art from a contemporary perspective, an unimpeded view over London saying that the museum was connected with today's world.

Of course there are plenty who think that much of the art shown at Tate Modern is completely out of touch with any sort of reality, but few would argue that the purpose of the place is unclear.

And it is a clear, simple vision that the ICA requires now. Does it even need a building? Could it not be a publisher, producer and promoter of new ideas and new voices unencumbered by the overhead of an expensive building? Maybe it should major on the "institute" part of its name and take a formal academic turn?

Or hand it over to the people for whom it was designed in the first place, artists: let Jeremy Deller run it one year and Paula Rego the next?


  • Comment number 1.

    What is the ICA for?

    To house the arts bureaucrats who are the ICA silly!!!

    It's name is a self contained oxymoron - neither being contemporary (, or at least having an odd idiosyncratic definition of contemporary) nor really artistic. Is it even an institute?

    However it is a very dangerous path to go down to suggest that the ICA should be housed in some underused space elsewhere. I recall the case of the Musée des Transports Urbains formerly in a tram depot at Malakoff then at Saint-Mandé in Paris. It closed in 1998 never yet to reopen anywhere (but it may do so in a few years time possible in Chelles). I recall it was a lovely collection of urban transport and associated ephemera but now closed for over a decade. In the case of the ICA I see some closed dusty warehouse as its fate!

    [What about a travelling show - peripatetically moving from public space to public space around the country! Then I fear it will spend most of its time in a lorry park!]

  • Comment number 2.

    If you asked someone who wasn't arts literate what the ICA is and where it's located, they probably wouldn't be able to tell you. Even people conversant with the arts might not be able to hazard a guess. And that's the problem in a nutshell as far as I'm concerned. In what was a golden era for the arts Ekow Eshun has totally failed to give the ICA the profile it needs (whether it deserves it is another question), and given the age of austerity and swingeing arts cuts we are about to enter, the Institute will probably end up dead in the water with its buildings (prime location on the Mall for the uninitiated) flogged off.

  • Comment number 3.

    I really like the idea of handing it to one artist for curatorial direction, but was always curious how tensions within the ICA got featured regularly in the Diary pages of the Evening Standard.

  • Comment number 4.

    They could do a lot worse than revamping their poor website, starting with that awfully aggressive three shot slideshow.


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