Irrelevant Cautious Antique

It was the stuff of rows in parliament, the most outrageous gallery in Britain. But the Institute of

Two years ago in Time Out, I described London's ICA as a "resolutely happening place". It was an ironic comment intended to suggest (with some sympathy) that the arts centre is finding it increasingly difficult to cling on to its radical image. Pouncing on the phrase (but ignoring the desperation it hinted at), the ICA press office quoted it for several months. Now it has been replaced. The website describes the venue as "the very model zone of maximum modernity". The remark, which is surely aimed at the clubbers who frequently throng the ICA bar, is so quaintly outdated that it's hard to believe it isn't ironic. Either way, it underlines the fact that belief in the ICA's radicalism is becoming harder to sustain.

The sad truth is that, as far as exhibitions go, the ICA would scarcely be missed if it closed down tomorrow. The only claim the gallery has to significance on the London art scene is its staging of Beck's Futures, an annual prize for promising young artists. The gallery was chosen by Beck's in 1999 - just in time to save it from becoming an utter irrelevance.

There was a time when things were different. In the mid-1970s, the ICA was rarely out of the news. In 1976, Mary Kelly's "dirty nappies" hit the headlines. Exhibited in the show "Post-Partum Document", which explored the development of Kelly's infant son, the nappies were seized on by the tabloids as a symbol for the absurdities of contemporary art - a position the nappies retained until ousted by the "Tate bricks" (Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII). The same year, the Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn tried to close the ICA. "A shocked MP saw a porn-and-pop art show . . . at the Gallery of Porn . . . and demanded that the Arts Council be scrapped," wrote one hysterical journalist. "Questions were asked in the Commons last night about why taxpayers' money was being squandered on such exhibitions." The target of Fairbairn's wrath was "Prostitution", an exhibition by Coum Transmissions (aka Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti), which contained used tampons and photographs of Tutti posing in a corset and black stockings. When the director, Ted Little, refused to close the show, the Arts Council withdrew its grant for the following year.

Having spent two exhausting years as gallery director in the 1970s, I know that the ICA has always had difficulty attracting the truckloads of corporate finance needed to augment public funding. More recently, the financier Ivan Massow, with his moneyed contacts, was made chairman of the institute. But two years ago in the New Statesman, Massow denounced the conceptual art championed by the ICA as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat", and suggested that his profound lack of confidence in the organisation and its values was shared by many in his circle. He argued that galleries which promote conceptual art are not radical at all, but merely stooges of an arts establishment "guilty of conspiring to make concept art synonymous with contemporary art". For those who work in the art world, the ICA's ground-breaking past has long been a fading memory, but city slickers have tended not to notice that its mantle of radicalism is now distinctly threadbare. Massow's broadside inevi-tably triggered his resignation.

The ICA was set up in 1947 by Roland Penrose, Herbert Read, Richard Hamilton and others as an artists' club at the opposite extreme from the Royal Academy. The club's base in Dover Street, near the RA in central London, was where pop art was generated. Some people argue that the move to the Mall in 1968 was a mistake. I don't agree. Carlton House Terrace could be as upmarket as Burlington House (the RA's headquarters) or as glamorous as the Serpentine Gallery, attracting both old and new money - but first the institute would have to find a new raison d'etre.

Over the past ten years, things have gone downhill with alarming speed. The tally of memorable solo shows has dropped dramatically to only one in 2001 - an installation by Mike Nelson - and none in the past three years. There have been some good mixed shows, such as "Mise en Scene" in 1994 and "Video Acts" in 2003, but an occasional success doesn't produce a significant arts centre. When Jeremy Millar curated "The Institute of Cultural Anxiety" and included T-shirts by Ross Sinclair bearing slogans such as "Passive School of Cultural Inertia" and "No Futurism", it was tempting to see them as reflections on the ICA.

The decline could have been reversed with the arrival of Philip Dodd as director in 1997. But when the exhibitions director Emma Dexter left for Tate Modern in 1999, Dodd compounded the problem by replacing her with four outside consultants. With no one on the premises to generate ideas and guide events, the programme foundered.

Some people consider it a problem that the venue has a theatre and cinema as well as a gallery, but each area just needs to assert its own identity. The talks and cinema programmes have remained strong, and the theatre programme - although essentially dead since Michael Morris quit in 1988 - has been magically brought back to life by Vivienne Gaskin. Since she returned two years ago from a stint at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gaskin has shifted her focus from British performance art to the international arena. In the space of a month, for example, the ICA is host to Rod Dickinson's recreation of the FBI's sound assault on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas; the premiere of the opera My Suicides (a collaboration between the artist Rut Blees Luxemburg, the philosopher Alexander GarcIa Dutt-mann, the composer Paul Clark and the choreographer Tom Sapsford); and a production from the Fronteras Festival of Latin America, which involves similar cross-cultural collaborations.

Exciting as these projects are, however, the ICA's raison d'etre is the gallery. If the institute is to survive, its main priority must be to persuade artists to renew the memberships that they allowed to lapse when the bar was invaded by clubbers and the exhibition programme went AWOL. In February, the Costa Rican Jens Hoffmann was made director of exhibitions. A curator previously based in Berlin, with a strong interest in performance art, he describes his approach as "trans-generational, trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary".

What can he do to resuscitate the ICA? What does London, already glutted with galleries, need? There is no going back: in the past decade, things have changed so much that it would not be possible - or desirable - to create a comparable programme. That territory is already occupied by the Serpentine and Whitechapel galleries. Nor do we want to see more of the shows that are already exhibiting at fringe venues and commercial galleries all over town. What we need - badly - is to broaden the art world's myopic frame of reference. The last "Documenta" (an international jamboree held in Kassel, west Germany, every four years) included a wealth of work from Africa, South America, eastern Europe and Asia. Following this lead would put the ICA back on the map in minutes.

The finance for such an ambitious programme would depend, to a large extent, on the ICA's overall director. Dodd has announced his resignation and is leaving next month. What qualities would his successor need? Energy, commitment, enthusiasm and, above all, belief in the future of the institute. This would enable him or her to persuade people who are rich, famous, powerful, intellectual or creative that the place deserves their money and support.

Sarah Kent is art critic of Time Out