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17 February 2010

Trouble at the ICA

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

By Daniel Trilling

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.

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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.

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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.