Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Rumour has crystallised into copy – blood on the walls and one foot in the grave - the ICA could well be dead by May.
When I was at Goldsmiths’ in 2000, the art content of my MA in contemporary art history consisted of the tutors telling me to go to the ICA. That might suggest that the ICA is the heartland of London’s contemporary art scene, but I’m not really sure it is these days.
I love the ICA. Contemporary art aside – priorities people, priorities! - the bar is the perfect after hours hang out in an otherwise fairly derelict area of town, joyfully free of city boys, American tourists and acrylic nails, and vending those yummy wasabi coated peanuts. The cinema programming is second to none, showing a glut of wonderful movies and documentaries you can’t see anywhere else. Lastly, and in all honesty, probably least, some of the exhibitions are interesting too. Up to a point. But the fact is the programming hasn’t kept up with the pace of change elsewhere across our colourful metropolis and over the decades what was once the edgy place to be has become just one of a generous helping of places showing mid-career good but tried and tested contemporary art. Sorry folks, I know we all love to love the ICA, but it’s true.
In recent years the ICA has failed to maintain a strong identity for itself. Not quite edgy niche – that place is now filled by a small handful of really meaningful idiosyncratic little spaces, both commercial and not, largely dotted out in the middle of nowhere, somehow managing to scrape together the resources to support dynamic programmes of genuinely innovative and seemingly un-commercial multi-disciplinary work. Neither is it the staggering behemoth-like Cathedral to modernity and contemporaneity that Tate Modern has burst into, relegating everything else to its shadow. Mr Serota, with his incredible success on Bankside may have brought the Monty Python foot down more or less smack in the middle of the ICA’s once dominant skyline. However, success always has its victims and if the ICA didn’t see it coming and act accordingly then we certainly can’t be blaming Great Uncle Nick. And let’s face it, we wouldn’t dare.
No, the ICA has just become too darn ordinary, a bit long in the tooth, a bit wrinkly, crinkly and set in its ways. The space itself doesn’t even really work that well. A bit of exhibition here, a bit there, a bit in the bar, a bit in the corridor and a bit up thirteen thousand flights of stairs. That’s alright if you’re engaging the quirkiness somehow, but to work around it as if it’s an issue you aren’t even seeing any more isn’t really good enough. So, maybe it’s a relocation they need? Somewhere cheaper and edgier. That’d be a massive gust of fresh air. Get the blood pumping again.
Anyway, the death knell rang out once and for all when, at the insistence of Arts Council England apparently, and as a condition of a fairly fatish bail-out loan last year, they scrapped the day membership fee allowing entrance to non-members. Not surprisingly, since then nobody, bar one or two stalwarts, has bothered to renew their annual membership. A few other unforeseen goings on and revenue fell off a cliff. Tricky. It seems to me though, and perhaps I’m financially naïve, well, there’s no perhaps about it, I am financially naïve, but I’ll ask the question anyway… with all the wealth that’s knocking about in contemporary art these days, can’t they tempt some generous collector / benefactor into bailing them out? There must be a lot of cache in that for some wealthy wannabe. Alan must know a few big hitters mustn’t he? OK, I can see that would put a different slant on things, and we’d have to listen to the fantastically dull conflict of interests brigade once again, but at least it’d stave off closure for a while. And after all, without sugar refinery, where would Tate be now?
The ICA may not be perfect, but who amongst us is? Everything goes through cycles in its lifetime and nobody’s on top of their game a hundred per cent of the time. There will always be peaks and troughs and in that real life context it’s difficult to deny that for most of its sixty-two year history the ICA’s performance has been unsurpassed. Set against the 80 / 20 rule it’s doing extremely well. Add to that the undisputed fact that the government happily shovels seemingly endless resources into any number of crappy, if not down right damaging schemes, and the fact that even in these relatively tough times there still seems to be plenty of money out there if you know where to look, I don’t think I’m just being sentimental when I say I really do think it would be a great shame if we were to lose the ICA. Who knows what the future may hold when (if) it enters its next roll. It might have started putting its teeth on the bedside table of an evening, but as ee cummings tells us: “whenever men are right they are not young.”