The NS Profile - The Institute of Contemporary Arts

Here, Britain's new establishment moves and shakes. There are even a few artists

It looks more like the stablehands' entrance to a Regency palace than the powerhouse where a new establishment is rebranding Britain. Indeed, until recently, politicians have tended to shun the Institute of Contemporary Arts, despite an appealing location in London's St James's Park, half-way between Whitehall and Buckingham Palace.

But ever since a serving arts minister, Chris Smith, was inveigled to open the New Media Centre there in 1997, there's been no stopping the movers and shakers. Peter Mandelson addressed a select crowd there last year; Robin Cook's new think-tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, will use it to launch a mission statement in March; Derek Draper recently became a member, simply by virtue of being "interested in art", he said. Even the Prime Minister has marked the spot for its "unequalled reputation for presenting innovative art and new ideas".

In the ICA's mezzanine bar, slung above the New Media Centre, the fixers park their mobile phones around a handful of tables - the ones beneath the skylight in the roof of the old stables or those perched near the balcony overlooking the gallery. Groups of two or three lunchers in Whitehall suits (neither Austin Reed nor Savile Row, but squarely in between) chat discreetly over Italian dishes. At ground level is a less anonymous space, with back-to-back booths, but the terrain is too favourable for professional eavesdroppers. Old hands are hoping that the architects, 24/seven, will reinstate chess sets in the imminent refit. A previous bar manager is said to have withdrawn them after a famous defeat.

On a randomly selected weekday, I find a Home Office official with a Rowntree Trust contact, a financial journalist shooting the breeze with an old Treasury colleague, and a pair of Foreign Office gents indulging in some informal bilateral briefing. If joined-up thinking is the key to good governance, here's the model.

Proximity to Whitehall has certainly helped in the formation of this cafe society, whose regulars can be identified by their direct passage from entrance to bar restaurant, known at the Treasury as the second canteen. Historic cultural convergences may establish a desirable ambience (the Internet artist Stellarc interfacing with the information theorist Jean Baudrillard; Hal Hartley exchanging notes with Will Self; Norman Rosenthal exchanging blows with Keith Allen), but the lunchers' preoccupations are the art of the possible, politics.

And the ICA is attracting the biggest guns, too. Robin Cook put on a genial performance at the Asia/Europe cultural summit last year. Dick Leonard will launch his biography of Anthony Crosland there next month; Gordon Brown will add his thoughts.

When the Prime Minister's kitchen cabinet (Roger Liddle, Geoff Mulgan, David Miliband, Andrew Adonis) is around, you can almost hear the heads being scratched.

The ICA was the brainchild of Sir Herbert Read, poet and anarchist, who first floated the idea in 1938, as a British counterpart to New York's Museum of Modern Art. War delayed the foundation of the institute until 1947, and the first exhibition was held in February 1948 in the basement of the Academy Cinema in London's Oxford Street.

But as a popular cause it failed to seize the public's imagination. Appeals for funds in 1947 drew a po-faced response from certain quarters. That friend of the great unwashed, George Bernard Shaw, suggested that money would be better spent on national hygiene. The early years were nomadic and the ICA offices moved from one central London building to another, with performance space begged and borrowed from sympathetic venues.

The ICA was never greatly loved. In 1954, John Berger, the painter and critic, dismissed it as "no more than a jazz club". The situationist director Guy Debord was hounded across the rooftops of Dover Street in 1957 after the institute's screening of Hurlements en faveur de Sade. In 1966, the director of exhibitions fielded a police raid and a £100 fine when Hermann Nitsch dismembered a lamb carcass for a "Destruction in Art" symposium. Despite a move to the plush Mall address in 1968, the ICA seems to have resisted respectability, somehow maintaining an allegiance to Read's mission statement - providing space for working out a "new and visionary consciousness". If anything has changed over its half century of existence, it is that the ICA can now expect this "visionary consciousness" to influence mainstream opinion in a matter of months rather than decades.

The entrepreneurially minded Philip Dodd arrived in 1997. The appointment of Dodd, academic, editor, curator, author and think-tank contributor, prompted alarums among the avant-garde, whose existence Dodd is said to doubt on the basis that the concept presupposes movement, for which he sees scant evidence. His famously be-kaftanned predecessor, Michael Kustow, used the New Statesman to issue a public warning (24 January 1997) about the ICA's future. There was, he said, a need for a change of scene: the pompous premises were distancing the ICA from cutting-edge creativity in seamier parts of the city. Dodd may have drawn another moral from Kustow's open letter; that the Nash premises had been secured in the first place by winning over the then MP for Buckingham, Robert Maxwell. Being in the neighbourhood had advantages.

Dodd does not want the ICA too closely associated with the new establishment. As he puts it: "I've never thrown my knickers at Tony Blair." His aim was simply to take the institute from the Bates Motel backwaters of public discussion and transform it to Grand Central Station.

As Lois Keidan of the Live Arts Development Agency puts it, "it's great for the arts that the ICA is called upon to appear on Newsnight". Other ICA diaspora members are more blunt; Katie Sender agrees that "where Dodd's been great for the ICA is that he likes being in the media". But there are doubts, too; Keidan fears that, partly as a result of this new influential role, "artists can feel slightly as though they've fallen off the edge of the agenda". The emphasis on forging links between the creative, commercial and political brings with it the risk that the institute may be accused of prostrating itself before market forces. The Saatchi Gallery's artist of the moment, Martin Maloney, was amazed by the experience of exhibiting at the ICA - "I was never once asked about the art, only about how to market the show."

The institute is proud of its promiscuity, though: "We've played with Demos, but we've also played with Living Marxism, under a libel writ from ITN, with Channel 4, and the Royal Institute," says Dodd. "You can't be sure which partners you're going to fall in love with; you can't be sure where the sources of creativity are going to come from."

The ICA's pick-and-mix quest for these new sources is evi- dent in its talks programme. Colin Blakemore, for example, under a fatwa from anti-vivisectionists for his animal research at Oxford, will shortly take a seminar on whether animals suffer. In the ICA shop is a book by Whitfield Diffie, a Sun Microsystems deep thinker. Charles Leadbeater, a leading new Labour thinker, now organising a study of the conditions under which cultural entrepreneurs thrive, is enthusiastic about the innovative "play" between these different fields.

This is the motive behind a successful series of private lunches. The ICA will throw ten people around a table, all highly influential in their varied walks of life, and let them get on with it. Mark Leonard, director of Cook's new Foreign Policy Centre, describes these sessions "as a nexus for a completely eclectic bunch of people, from the creative industries and beyond, who may have never met before". The fashion guru Helen Storey was impressed that fellow lunchers, from whatever metier, all had "an ability to have an impact on society"; Janice Kirkpatrick, director of the influential design house Graven Image, found it a huge relief that an art institution could relax about technical categories, admitting thinkers from "across the creative spectrum, accountants, financiers, government strategists and designers" alongside the traditional artistes. Channel 4's commissioning editor, Janey Walker, remembers wondering what she had in common with her fellow guests - Millennium Experience creatives, an art collector, Peter Hewitt of the Arts Council - but soon found that "there are a lot of collaborations to be had" with people who are usually busy only in their own areas.

The ICA is intensely sensitive to accusations of Anglocentrism in its cultural programmes, and metro-centrism in its "New Luncher" clientele. Thus it nurtures relationships with other nations, and with the likes of the Edinburgh-based Kirkpatrick.

Partly as a result of looking to Asia as a dynamic cultural influence, the ICA found itself representing Britain for the British Council's latest trade mission to China. The ICA regular Mark Webber (of the indie group Pulp) popped in at the Shanghai venue to "curate" a mixed-media club night.

Webber's monthly "Little Stabs at Happiness" club nights back in London, mixing music with film and other media, draw a completely fresh crowd to the ICA after dark. Few of Westminster's movers and shakers remain when the kids come out to play; only a handful, such as Paul Boateng, could carry off the transition between official sobriety and the black-specs-and-polo-necks posse. For art lovers, and especially for these Central- St Martin's Hirst-alikes, it's a divide they consider best left unbridged.

In some circles, politics still remains too frightfully gauche.