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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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