Trouble at the ICA

Is this the first stage of a wider crisis in the arts?

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, founded in 1948, has promoted some of the most exciting arts movements of the postwar period, so the news last month of its financial crisis was disappointing, to say the least.

The crisis, a deficit of £600,000 that will result in redundancies for a third of the ICA's 60-strong staff and could even lead to its closure, has been explained as an unfortunate consequence of the recession. But the art critic J J Charlesworth, writing in the cultural journal Mute, argues there was chronic mismanagement of the organisation under its artistic director, Ekow Eshun.

In particular, he identifies a reliance on corporate sponsorship -- which evaporated after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 -- to bring in revenue:

Under Eshun, the ICA went from an income of just over £3.75 million in 2005 to just over £5m by 2008 . . . Such large increases were achieved by a new sponsorship-led policy, hiring new development and marketing staff tasked with developing high-profile sponsorship events that prioritised the ICA "brand" as a whole, rather than supporting any individual programming department. Not surprisingly, the ICA's wage bill in the period ballooned, from £1.75m in 2005 to £2.5m in 2008, although the ICA's accounts report an increase in average staff head count of only 13. The number of staff paid more than £50,000 rose from three to ten in that period.

Charlesworth is particularly scathing of Eshun, a former style magazine editor who believes the ICA's future lies in associating with celebrity artists -- "because our audience believes they are cool", as he put it in a recent strategy document -- rather than having curators choose work based on its inherent value.

Eshun, like some commentators, believes the ICA has struggled to be "relevant" in recent years. He puts this down to the decline of "the traditional model of the arts centre with its silo-like programming structure". (One might argue that part of the ICA's problem is the much larger, Tate Modern-shaped silo on the other side of the River Thames, which seems to have no problem attracting audiences to traditional-format exhibitions, talks and events.)

In fact, the problem goes deeper, says Charlesworth. The fortunes of an influential but small London-based arts institution may seem relatively trivial, but he makes a compelling link between the ICA's current crisis and New Labour's wider approach to the arts. In particular, this means the removal from decision-making positions of people with expert knowledge of artistic disciplines, and their replacement with bureaucrats versed in management-speak:

[The] process destroyed the British Council's artistic departments in late 2007, when it disbanded its film, drama, dance, literature, design and visual arts departments, amalgamating them into a single "arts team", organised around bizarre management aphorisms such as "Progressive Facilitation", "Market Intelligence Network", "Knowledge Transfer Function" and "Modern Pioneer".

You may not agree with Charlesworth's analysis (some in the Mute comments thread, aside from the ICA's own press department, clearly don't). But the piece raises serious questions about the future of the arts in a country where money is hard to come by and the prevailing orthodoxy -- that cultural institutions are best run like profit-driven businesses -- has been discredited.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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