Not so much an institute as a British art world institution, London’s ICA was once the capital’s premier clubhouse-cum-exhibtion/performance space and a hub for the creatively innovative and artistically subversive, located in the heart of the establishment, just a stone’s throw from Whitehall and Buckingham Palace. Now, thanks to the recession, the pulling power of the East End and some contentious supervisory strategies, its very survival is in doubt. Harry Pye wonders why.
I’ve been reading a brilliant book by Michael Bracewell. It’s called, Re-make/Re-model: Art Pop, Fashion and the Making of Roxy Music (Faber). Bracewell writes about how the young Bryan Ferry turned himself into a work of art, fashion and music so they would be considered “a state of mind”. The book is full of quotes from interesting figures with great minds such as Brian Eno, who believes: “Pop music is not about making music in any traditional sense of the word. It is about creating new, imaginary worlds, and inviting people to join them.”
The ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) is mentioned many times in the book, largely because Ferry’s art teacher (and hero) was Richard Hamilton. Between the years 1952 and 1955 Hamilton was a principal member of The Independent Group – a gang of critics and fellow artists who would meet up at the ICA and get into fights about art and ideas. In 1951, Hamilton curated an event at the ICA called Growth and Form. He was experimenting with film loops, stroke lights and noise collage (more than a decade before Warhol and the Velvet Underground would do similar things in New York City).
I remember being taken to ICA in 1985, when I was 12. By then it already had a proud history of groundbreaking shows – for example Aaargh!, a celebration of comics, held in 197o, which was pretty unique. Likeiise the 1974 exhibition Art Into Societry – Society Into Art saw Joseph Beuys spend eight hours a day at the ICA talking to visitors. In the ‘9os the ICA notably gave solo shows to Gary Hume, Mark Wallinger. The Chapman Brothers and Damien Hirst extremely early in their careers, helping to put them all on the cultural map.
What caught my eye on my first visit, as a child, was actually the bookshop. I loved seeing all the magazines and art books, especially the independently produced art fanzines. To me, at least, it was a new world. As lame as it may sound now I daydreamed that I would one day have a magazine in that bookshop. Many years later, the dream came true and I was the editor/publisher of a fanzine called Frank that sold well there.
I never paid to be a member of the ICA but I did visit every now and then. I had a friend who worked as a security guard who could occasionally let me in to see the odd film at the ICA cinema, and I saw some bands and a few art shows. I even helped organise a live event in the bar, once. A friend and I staged a tribute evening to the late Peter Cook which featured the poet John Cooper Clarke. We made lots of mistakes and trod on a few toes, but a huge number of people turned up and many seemed to enjoy it. I liked the fact that I could just phone up and pitch my idea – it seemed very refreshing. The ICA was a famous institution and I was a nobody who’d just left art school. They were the establishment but they were willing to listen and take risks. I became friends with Russell Herron, the ex-manager of the ICA bookshop. Before Russell became a dad and left his job he was, like Bryan Ferry, turning himself into a piece of art. He wrote a blog, obsessively, about every private view and art world happening he attended.
This January I happened to come across a feature in the Daily Mail written by the ICA’s former chairman, Ivan Massow. It was an odd article; it said ICA stood for “The Institute of Craftless Tat” and claimed that most of the 5oo,ooo people who go there each year only do so to use the toilets. Mason was writing after it emerged that the Arts Council have given the ICA more than a million pounds in funding to get back on its feet after being hit badly by the recession – this was on top of the £1.5 million they receive annually. Massow felt strongly that the ICA didn’t deserve any more funding and said the Arts Council might as well give the cash to MPs. He came across as being a but of a jerk and, so far, I haven’t found anyone to say anything nice about him, let alone agree with his views.
However, a week or so after reading this, I heard that the ICA was in trouble and this time there was a very real threat to its continuing existence. I began asking around to see what other people thought about the ICA. Specifically, I asked the poet John Hegley, the musician Billy Childish, the painter Humphrey Ocean and the comedian Stewart Lee to comment.
John Hegley: The Institute [of ContemporaryArts] has provided me with fruitful nights of theatre and bemusing pieces of art. I performed there once with a highly swollen lower face, but was still able to enjoy the convivial bar area (briefly).
Humphrey Ocean: That is miserable news about the ICA. I have been going there since 1968- and back then it felt like the epicentre of the groove. I was there the other night and saw [the Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson directed film] Mugabe and the White South African. A few weeks before that, I saw [Astra Taylor’s film) Examined Life. I was only saying at the weekend, talking about the Mugabe film, that among all sorts of things there [the ICA] I have seen films on Derrida and Sizek, and London, by Patrick Keiller… these are films that have transformed how I see the world in a small or, in some cases, huge way. What more can one ask for? Truly, the films I remember are the ones I have seen at the ICA. But that won’t keep an art centre open, I am aware of that.
Billy Childish: I went to the ICA to see a 1oo-minute punk rock movie. I’ve played and read at the ICA on a number of occasions and have a one- man exhibition on there at the moment. There will be a film night/reading and a gig, during the show. I hope I won’t be blamed for sinking the ship.
Stewart Lee: Over the years at the ICA, I have seen: The Triffids’ acoustic show and cine film tour (1987), the NME new bands showcase with The Blue Aeroplanes/The Family Cat/Voice Of The Beehive (1989), Galaxie 5oo (199o), Various London Musicians Collective free jazz things, Fred Frith, Eddie Prevost, etc. All the music I used to see at the ICA is now at Cafe OTO. There’s never any music I want to see at the ICA now. But, then, I am 4o. And it was a different pre-laddism world, back then, whetethe NME could partner the ICA. All the weird stuff you used to need the ICA for is so much more accessible now and there’s lots of places to drink late.
It’s perhaps Stewart Lee who makes the most accurate observation about reasons for the ICAs dip in popularity. Facebook and Twitter have become a virtual ‘hub’ for listings and events information. There are increasing numbers o fartist-run spaces popping up each week in East London; even with all the information that’s available, it’s hard to keep track of them all. The world and his wife turn up to Vyner Street on the first Thursday of each month and on the first Friday of each month they go to ‘Late at Tate’. Why aren’t they going to the ICA, too?
Somehow the ICA became a little out of touch and redundant, and not just in terms of exhibitions. Although it made the headlines when Sir Paul McCartney played there in 2oo7, if someone is talking about an exciting new young band they’ve just seen, the chances are they saw them at somewhere like Barden’s Boudoir. Meanwhile, Artprojx and V22 are the independent groups putting on cool film events.
I had the chance to meet Ekow Eshun, who has been artistic director of the ICA since 2oo5. He agreed he would answer a few questions but then didn’t get back to me . I asked a few other ICA ‘people’ but everyone’s lips were sealed. Even my friend Russell said it was too political and he couldn’t comment. However, people began discussing an article about the ICA on Mute Magazine’s online site. Whilst Massow’s complaints could be brushed off or dismissed as being the ramblings of an attention-seeking provocateur, this time it was a different kettle of fish. Mute’s respected critic J.J. Charlesworth pointed out many of Eshun’s failings in an in depth and apparently well-researched article.
Charlesworth claimed the recession wasn’t to blame for the ICA’s woes and that, since Eshun had taken over, a catalogue of avoidable mistakes had been made. Although Eshun had abolished the day membership (the £2 entry fee), which lost them €6o,ooo, he had raised millions of pounds for the ICA with charity nights, sponsorship deals with companies like Sony, and by selling off the ICA’s Picasso mural. None of this appeased Charlesworth because, while more money had been spent on exhibitions, Eshun had axed the live and media art departments. Charlesworth also made the point that although sponsorship cash had been negotiated it was only ever on a short-term basis. The fact that Eshun was once the editor of Arena magazine angers Charlesworth who, in an extremely unflattering portrait, compares Eshun to both a nitwit journalist writing ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not’ features and to tacky talent show judge Simon Cowell. Ouch.
Things are looking bad for the staff of the ICA. It seems that one third of its staff of 6o are about to lose their jobs. Eshun has claimed he was right to scrap the live art department as it “lacks cultural urgency”. I would have liked to interview him to get his side of the story but I sympathise; he has a lot on his plate this month. I believe many will feel Charlesworth has been too harsh in his comments. However, although no one I spoke to wanted to be quoted, I think it’s fair to say that there are many who feel the ICA has been run into the ground on both a financial and an artistic level and that Eshun should accept part of the blame. There are some people who know far more about the ICA than I, who I have told me that Charlesworth’s comments are spot on.
Before more criticisms come his way I’d like to know more about the state of the ICA and the problems which Eshun inherited, and also who his detractors think should have been artistic director in his place. It’s time for the ICA to have a rethink. My hope is that they are saved and those 20 people don’t lose their jobs. We need the ICA. Its role is to be an incubator of talent and ideas and a meeting place for artists who want to create new imaginary worlds and invite others to join them.