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‘It should not be to its past that the ICA is beholden, rather the needs of the present and future’

31 October 2016

Change should be expected at an institute dedicated to the contemporary. Five years after Gregor Muir was appointed executive director at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), he is moving on to become Director of Collection, International Art at Tate. A rotation of art world top-brass may have become de rigueur – even Tate directorships are becoming terms of office rather than lengthy habitations – but an organisation that prides itself on being programmed less than a year in advance seems to invite transitory directorship. In fact, the turnover is not especially egregious. The ICA has averaged a new director only every eight years (exclusive of the managing and financial directors of its post-2004 bifurcated management structure), notwithstanding the fact that its second and only female director, Dorothy Morland, remained in the post for 18 years. More remarkable than number is the variety of directorial persuasions, including an artist, a playwright, a psychologist and a magazine editor. Reflective of a desire to be a weather vane for the subtlest of movements in the cultural breeze, the ICA’s departmental structure has also frequently shifted, with programmatic divisions – including ‘recordings’, ‘live art’, ‘talks’, ‘media art’ – regularly dissolved and reconstituted. Seventy years old next year, this child of Auden’s Age of Anxiety remains indefatigably restless.

As current managing director, Karen Turner, is about to be joined by new executive director, Stefan Kalmár, and with a capital development project in the offing, it is tempting to speculate as to how this restlessness will be manifested. Which programmatic distinctions will be kept, abandoned or reformed? A number of recent archival explorations of its past exhibitions in the ICA’s Fox Reading Room and plans to follow the Whitechapel and Tate Britain in putting its archive at the centre of its redeveloped site suggest that the Institute is in a reflective mood. How will this burden of history sit within an institution of the now? How will the new director reflect on the organisation’s past successes and failures?

It should not be to its past that the ICA is beholden, rather the needs of the present and future. This is not to say that the archive is unimportant, but that it should be used to create a counterpoint in the present, rather than to establish a lineage or a foundation myth with which to beat incoming directors or to supply the demands of an anniversary-driven culture industry. The archive animated in the present does not need to be a canonical formation used to measure success, but can provide fragments of unfulfilled histories, utopian gestures, or unresolved questions that may help us understand the potential and limits of our contemporaneity. This means returning to mission statements and foundational documents not to recover or return to an original purpose, but to unearth the historic conditions and equivocations that are inherent within such documents. Furthermore, it is not the ICA alone that needs an archival counterpoint to understand the parameters of its current position, but all institutions that claim a vital and ongoing relationship with the present.

Gregor Muir, appointed director of London's ICA in 2011. Photo: Felix Clay

Gregor Muir, appointed director of London’s ICA in 2011. Photo: Felix Clay

London’s may have been the first ICA, but even in its moment of formation it considered itself late to the party – playing catch-up with the European pre-war avant-garde and American practices of cultural organisation and patronage. After the Second World War, as chilly new frontlines were being drawn, many of which were cultural, arts organisations were forming their allegiances and declaring their allies. In 1950 the ICA published in their monthly bulletin a manifesto signed by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the ICA. However, the final signatory was not London’s ICA, but Boston’s; the document was a pact between the three American institutions to defend a freedom of expression aligned with a liberal project of artistic progress. Despite the ICA Boston signing-up to the pledge to help ‘humanity to come to terms with the modern world’, it was appropriate that the London venue circulated the memo, led, as it was, by the internationalist purview of its chairman, Herbert Read, and first director, Roland Penrose.

In fact, confusing the two ICAs would be a mistake; the reasons for adopting ‘contemporary’ within their titles, just one year apart, were very different. Boston’s ICA, founded in 1936 as a branch of the MoMA, had made its titular change to declare its independence from MoMA’s particular project. According to art historian Serge Guilbaut, this name change, accompanied by a public statement titled ‘“Modern Art” and the American Public’, sent shock waves through the American art establishment and was viewed by many as ‘a step away from internationalism and one towards isolationism’. Two years after the name change, the 1950 manifesto was an attempt to heal the rifts of the progressive liberal art establishment on MoMA’s terms.

Although London’s ICA committee also chose the ‘contemporary’ in its title to distinguish itself from the MoMA mothership, their concern was not with the politics of a modernist agenda, rather with the increasingly rarefied version of modern art being extolled by Alfred H. Barr Jr. in New York. Revealingly, London’s ICA took its company name, Living Arts, from a New York venue that predated by two years the founding of MoMA in 1929. Originally titled the Gallery of Living Art (changing Gallery to Museum in 1936) and attached to New York University, it displayed the collection of its founder, curator and manager, A.E. Gallatin. By referencing the earlier venture, the ICA attempted to return to a pre-MoMA moment, when modern art’s formation was less mapped and more uncertain.

Arguably more significant than the rejection of the word ‘modern’ was the rejection of the word ‘museum’. Over the course of the early committee meetings of London’s nascent venture, museum disappeared and reappeared within the proposed title until committee member Jacques Brunius finally pleaded for something less ‘mausoleumesque’. Despite this apparent negation, the ICA remained entirely enthralled to the museum as a form to both emulate and reject. In reality, the ICA relied heavily on material from MoMA, especially Barr’s famous catalogues, and repeatedly sought further funds from the Arts Council (never to be granted) to turn the ICA into a collecting institution. It seemed that it could not entirely shrug off a concern for posterity. At both London and Boston the contemporary came to signify an equivocation within both the project of modern art and the museum as cultural form. The ICAs were born.

Poster advertising 'Cybernetic Serendipity' at ICA London, 2 August–20 October 1968

Poster advertising ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ at ICA London, 2 August–20 October 1968

Despite the nearly contemporaneous establishment of the ICAs, one crucial letter separated London from Boston. Choosing ‘arts’ over ‘art’, the London venue not only aligned itself with the newly formed Arts Council, but made a commitment to plurality. Not just interested in traditional demarcations of art, the pluralisation opened up discussions as to whether new media, such as television, might be included in a contemporary understanding of artistic practice. It was for this function, as a place of discussion, that the ICA was to become primarily known. Influenced by Bauhaus and medieval models of artisan production, Read wished for the ICA to be as much a workshop and professional-guild environment as a space for display. However, in the technological ‘white heat’ of the post-war moment the ICA wanted less to be a studio complex than a Royal Institution for the arts, adapting the 150-year-old aim to ‘apply science to the common purposes of life’ to the new centre for cultural experiment. Like MoMA before it and the Whitechapel Gallery under Bryan Robertson after it, the ICA aspired to be a ‘laboratory’. Pre-empting C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 Rede Lecture, ‘The Two Cultures’, the greatest programmatic goal for the early ICA was to bring arts and science into closer dialogue. Although this particular aim has never fully faded from the ICA’s defining purpose – Jasia Reichardt’s groundbreaking and often cited exhibition, ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ (1968), remains an anchor point for the Institute – it cannot be said that London’s or any other ICA, from Winnipeg to Singapore, has realised the merger of studio and lab.

The shortcomings of the ICA in relation to its bold pretentions to instigate a wholesale change in education, industry, artistic production and the divisions between art, science and technology were not lost on Herbert Read. In 1959, in response to a request from then-director Morland to the ICA committee to reflect on the ICA’s mission, Read wrote: ‘We spoke of experiment and research, of workshops and cooperative projects. All this has gone. We failed to carry the artists with us. Perhaps we proved that the artist is essentially an individualist and will not cooperate.’ Whether the out-of-touch view of an ageing critic, or the wise warning of a lifelong radical, the total condemnation is hard to ignore. The pronouncement of failure appears shocking in its frankness, but not in its coming to pass. After all, what ideal foundational mission has not been compromised through the pragmatics of survival and adaptation? However, Read’s particular admonishment seems almost perverse, given that he had done little to make the ICA especially open or accessible for a younger generation of artists. It was Morland who persuaded the ICA committee to give space (physical and conceptual) to a group of artists whose ‘independence’ from the ICA patriarchy gave them their soon to be celebrated name, the ‘Independent Group’. Nor did Read, a committed anarchist, make any attempt to form the ICA as a horizontal organisation, putting into practice syndicalist or cooperative structures. Upon reflection, one cannot help but wonder if Read’s declaration of failure was somewhat triumphant – ultimately a Romantic, was he pleased that the artist remained an outsider and individualist?

It may be time to rethink what those words “institute” and “arts” might usefully do in relation to the “contemporary”

Wedded as he was to the notion of the modernist heroic artist, creating universal forms for, rather than part of, a new collectivity, perhaps Read could not see what the ICA had achieved. Although by the time of Read’s death in 1968 there was not, as he had hoped, an arts centre on every corner, by 1978 there were over 150 in the UK, most formed after the war. Furthermore, whether in emulation of or difference to the ICA, many of these arts spaces were truly artist-led collective enterprises that made experiment and discussion their business. Fast forward to the present and the ICA’s equivocation over the claims of the museum and the modern have become an essential part of all art institutions. It is of this success that we may now consider the ICA to be a victim. Even the Tate, once the ICA’s bête noire, has left empty an entire floor of its new Switch House building – taking away the collection to make space for something more live, more present, more contemporary. Meanwhile, just a little over a year old, the Manchester-based multi-arts centre, Home, promises with its name to be the welcoming, open space that the ICA always wanted to be.

So integral to the functioning of the art world has the ICA’s discursive, responsive proposition become that Muir curated the talks programme at this year’s Frieze Art Fair in London; even the art fair cannot ignore the added value produced by the apparatus of the non-collecting venue. Like an institutional mirage in the desert of the contemporary, Frieze appears as the ultimate ICA: equipped with film and talks programmes, tours, performances, it is so anti-permanence that it dissolves after just a few days. However, let us not be fooled by this triumph of the contemporary. Coming as a sweet relief or as the feared mausoleum, Frieze Masters is the softly carpeted antidote to the maelstrom of the contemporary. As the sober older brother of the fair it tames even the most anti-art establishment of collectives, be it CoBrA, the Viennese Actionists, or protagonists of the ICA’s Independent Group, into serene fossils of museum-quality collectability.

This is not to blame the ICA for any sort of short-sightedness, compromise or failure. The particular provocation and institutional questioning that the ICA (and to an extent all ICAs operating with and without that name) generated continues to be of vital importance; we still need other ways of relating to the nexus of human and non-human production that we call culture beyond the museum, the apparatus of which remains enshrined in aristocratic notions of collecting.

However, it may be time to rethink what those words ‘institute’ and ‘arts’ might usefully do in relation to the ‘contemporary’. Maybe our present moment doesn’t need a space of constant change, but a place of stability for a precarious labour force and a place of responsibility in a time of irresponsible knee-jerk politics and race-to-the-bottom divisiveness. Maybe a collective studio space is now more necessary than a laboratory producing more gadgets and objects. Might the ICA’s original modest aim of providing a library of the avant-garde be a more radical one today than creating an excessive events programme? Does Alistair Hudson’s enactment of Arte Útil (useful art) at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) reveal that the one thing that Read hoped the ICA would not be, a community arts centre, is the one thing that we need? To discuss and answer these questions is the job of an ICA. The guiding question of such an institute should not be, is this or that phenomenon ‘of’ our time, but how do we want to be ‘with’ time? A truly contemporary organisation needs to be an archival and archaeological one, uncovering not just moments from the past, but other forms of contemporality.

From the November issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here