Arriving at the snowy Georgian sweep of Carlton House Terrace one Tuesday afternoon in March I was perplexed to find the wooden doors to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts sealed. The ICA, it transpired, was now open only from Wednesday to Sunday. This auto-amputation was a poignant legacy of the ICA’s anni horribili. The death knell on the seven-day week sounded in 2009, part of cost-cutting measures taken to save the institution from permanent closure.
Analyses of what had gone wrong differed. Ekow Eshun, director from 2005 to 2010, blamed a “perfect storm” of events triggered by the economic crash of 2008. Others accused Eshun of bad programming, poor leadership and over-reliance on shaky, short-term sponsorship.
Whatever the cause, by 2010 the deficit stood between £600,000 and £800,000. Salvation came in the form of £1.2m from the Arts Council’s emergency fund. The price was that dozens of jobs had to be axed. By the end of 2010, both Eshun and the chairman, Alan Yentob, had resigned. The decision to replace Yentob with Alison Myners, widely respected as chair of the Contemporary Arts Society, suggested rebirth was possible.
Optimism rose with the appointment last year of Gregor Muir as executive director. Formerly director at Hauser & Wirth and a curator at Tate, Muir promised commercial savvy and creative imagination. Originally an art student at Camberwell, he built his career writing about and curating the Young British Artists. Today few are better connected among the art-world elite.
Founded in 1947 by a group of anarchists, artists and writers including Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, the ICA was destined to live life on the edge. One director, Norman Rosenthal, left his blood on the wall after a fight. Chairman in the 1980s, Ivan Massow, had to resign after he blasted conceptual art as “craftless tat”. Artistically, it has witnessed seminal moments, from the first articulation of Pop Art in a lecture by Eduardo Paolozzi in the early 1950s, to Mary Kelly’s legendary display of dirty nappies in 1976.
In recent times, as visual-arts empires such as the Whitechapel Gallery and Tate Modern took wing, the ICA – which was set up as a multi-disciplinary space – became fêted for avant-garde cinema, performance art and an excellent lecture programme. Little wonder that Eshun’s least popular moves were to abolish the Talks and Live and Media Arts departments. Intended to herald a more fluid structure, these changes aggravated the loss of direction. As a result, Muir faces a two-fold challenge: to recreate a meaningful identity for the ICA and to devise a financial model that guarantees its future.
His blue-chip credentials suggest that visual-arts programming will take precedence. “We acknowledge that that the [main] exhibition itself is the driving force,” he says. What he envisages is a “more streamlined programme of talks and events… that relate to the exhibition for the most part.” For example, the opening last month of Remote Control – which brings together work inspired by television from artists of several generations, from Richard Hamilton to Lucky PDF – was accompanied by a film programme that included To Die For and The Truman Show.
The core funding is the Arts Council England grant of £900,000 a year until 2014. Representing a cut of 32 per cent, even that sum represented a sign that “the institution had taken great steps to correct itself”. Critical savings came from a reduction in staff from 60 to 37. Now, says Muir, the way forward is to rediscover the ICA’s origins as a place “with an absolute connection to artists”.
To this end, he has instigated an Artists’ Advisory Group, chaired by British artist Roger Hiorns. And although the film programme shows little sign of betraying cinema buffs, new initiatives include the Artists’ Film Club which will see artists showing and discussing their work. There is also renewed commitment to talks. Entitled Culture Now, the Friday lunchtime series has welcomed the likes of Bianca Jagger – in conversation with human rights lawyer Mark Stephens, Grayson Perry and feminist artist Linda Benglis. In this way, Muir hopes to make the ICA once more a place with “that sense of dialogue, [somewhere] to hang out, to be in the bar, to go and spend a day.”
Muir refuses to bad mouth the previous administration but when he delicately affirms his intention of remaking the ICA “as a place for living art… as expressed in the very first business plan” – not to mention Remote Control’s clear correlation to the media art so recently devalued – it’s clear that amends are being made. Yet they must be paid for too. Annual earnings are forecast at £1.2m from bookshop sales, box office takings, artists’ editions, hiring out of rooms and catering. A further £650,000 is projected from patrons, public-sector partners, corporate support, individual donors and trusts and foundations.
Here, Muir’s pedigree comes into its own. Since he arrived, the number of patrons has risen from 18 to nearly 50. A lateral approach both to “living art” and to fund-raising has seen gala auctions where artists including Tracey Emin and Yinka Shonibare make work in front of the guests. In June, Subodh Gupta – a Hauser & Wirth artist – will take up the challenge. “If I can bring a sense of possibility to the ICA through any connections I have, any networks I have, I see it as a great honour,” says Muir.
Isn’t there a danger that in such straitened times, the integrity of a public institution dedicated to radical artists will be compromised? His decision to display Jacob Kassay – whose shimmery, metallic canvases are fetching sky-high sums – during Frieze Art Fair week last year led to accusations that he had sold out for a crowd-pulling market darling. Muir has no qualms. “It was the first time the ICA was in the Frieze VIP booklet,” he retorts cheerfully. “We showed [Kassay] alongside Frances Stark and had these fantastic Franz West sculptures on the roof and we saw fantastic people coming to our opening lunch… We put ourselves on the map.” The pairing of Kassay and Stark, a far more cerebral artist, typifies a mix-and-match approach that will, I suspect, be Muir’s way forward.
Indeed, following on from Remote Control is an exhibition that proffers an extreme blend of marginal and mainstream. Days, which opens next month, is named after a 2009 Bruce Naumann work that will be in situ: a cacophony of voices reciting the days of the week. Accompanying it, however, will be a website hosting 75 sound files made in response to Naumann by young artists chosen by museums from all over the world. Magnifying its reach, those museums’ websites will also host the project.
A couple of days later, I drop in one lunchtime to find the ICA humming with visitors from art students to office workers. Most compelling is a display of films by little-known British artist Lis Rhodes. Turning a poetic yet uncompromising lens on a world “where words have been sold off to private investors”, Rhodes’s bold visual songs of anti-capitalist rage hold a clutch of us gripped for 40 minutes.
It is to showcase such artists that the ICA was born. That it can find a space for them and, since last month, open again on Tuesdays suggests that it is back on track at last.
‘Remote Control’ continues until June 10. ‘Days’ opens on June 19, www.ica.org.uk