In praise of the ICA, home of the avant-garde

Last night's concert by REM celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Institute for Contemporary Arts. Ciar Byrne and Emily Dugan pay tribute to an organisation that remains as modern as ever

When REM stepped out at the Albert Hall last night in honour of the 60th birthday celebrations of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), it can be safely assumed that Ivan Massow was not present among the assembled well-wishers. Six years ago Mr Massow, a businessman, was forced to resign from the ICA's board of directors after making outspoken and deprecatory remarks about modern art.

He had to go. For better or for worse, the modern, the challenging, the outré and even the downright odd is and always has been the raison d'etre of London's most determined defender of the avant-garde.

The first exhibition staged by the ICA, in 1948, was held not in the splendid surroundings of The Mall, but in a dingy Oxford Street basement. Entitled "40 Years of Modern Art", the exhibition displayed some of the greatest works in the burgeoning Cubist movement alongside a lavish range of international artists. It was an attempt to move away from the orthodoxies and conservatism of the London art scene, a desire which has maintained its intensity for the next six decades.

The REM gig is being accompanied by an exhibition of photographs of the group at the ICA's gallery. "There isn't a historical connection," admitted Ekow Eshun, the current artistic director of the centre. "But you could say there's been a history of mutual admiration." He added that REM's interest in artistic projects outside of the purely musical, such as the lead singer Michael Stipe's schooling in video art, provided a connection.

The seeds of iconoclasm were sewn in 1947, when a collection of modernist artists and thinkers sought to deliver a stark, exciting alternative to the post-war austerity and mainstream fare on offer at galleries elsewhere; this was to be a private members' club that would revolutionise the way Britain thought about art.

Led by the poet, literary critic and philosopher Herbert Read, the surrealist painter, poet and art historian Roland Penrose, and the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, the group founded the ICA with the intention of breaking down barriers between different artistic disciplines and presenting an ever-changing series of talks and exhibitions, in contrast to the stultifying permanent collections of the existing national institutions.

Mr Eshun said: "The story is the coming together of the great modernists who were around in Britain in that period. It was a celebration of pre-war modern art in the post-war era. Very quickly it became a gathering point for advocates and supporters of modernism."

Herbert Read was perhaps the most outlandish of the three founders. An anarchist, he wanted the institute to be "an adult play centre", where free-thinkers of the arts and science world could meet. This statement was no joke, for in the years after the Second World War, he believed that aggression could be "kept in check via sublimation – namely through play".

In his ICA manifesto, Read talked about creating a place that didn't have a fixed culture, although he admitted he and his colleagues might be mocked for their "naïve idealism".

Penrose and Read had already established themselves on the cutting edge of the art scene after collaborating on the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition – a show which has since been credited with launching the British surrealist movement.

The first major art phenomenon to be pioneered by the ICA, however, was the British pop art movement. This was largely down to the Paolozzi, who was becoming established as a pop artist in his own right.

In the 1950s their first exhibition space was in Dover Street, Mayfair, where they held some of the first major pop art exhibitions. From this small building they also pioneered the careers of modernist classical composers, such as Stravinsky and John Cage, and began to screen arthouse films chosen by members. Over the years, T S Eliot, Jackson Pollock, Jacques Derrida, Yoko Ono, Vivienne Westwood and Zadie Smith have also played a part in shaping the most distinctive art venue in Britain.

In the 1970s the ICA became notorious, and wildly unpopular with the political right, for its radicalism and ever-more daring commissions. The tabloids had a field day when the gallery hosted an explicit exhibition on prostitution. A battle ensued over the legitimacy of public funding for material so challenging to the public taste. Eventually, in one of the ICA's rare defeats, the show was forced to close within four days of opening. Since then, however, an invitation from the ICA has been a cultural springboard for generations of artists such as Damien Hirst, Luc Tuymans and Steve McQueen, who all had their first solo shows there. In the 1990s the gallery also served as a starting point for many Young British Artists, most notably Jake and Dinos Chapman who staged their first show there in 1996, Chapman World.

Then there has been the music. It is no accident that REM were keen to play the anniversary show. Stipe and his bandmates are among the many international artists who have sought inspiration at the institute, which has been at the forefront of the music scene since the 1950s. The Clash and The Smiths both played early gigs there while many other venues let them languish in unsigned obscurity. The Stone Roses, Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters have also been showcased in its 300-capacity theatre. Continuing the spirit of musical innovation, last July the ICA hosted a series of 31 free gigs by performers including Amy Winehouse, Mika and Stereophonics, with tickets allocated by prize draw.

In 2008, the shoals of tourists continue to float by the ICA en route to Buckingham Palace, most with no inkling of the cultural riches housed within the relatively modest frontage. Stopping to investigate, they would discover a vibrant programme of exhibitions, films, concerts and talks – including studies of Brazil's urban beaches; a documentary about a 93-year-old barber in Beijing; the film-maker Peter Greenaway telling stories about storytelling and indie bands playing to intimate audiences.

Mr Eshun believes that staying true to its roots has helped the institute thrive. In the past two years, visitor numbers have soared 24 per cent to half a million and membership has risen.

He explained: "The purpose of an institution like this isn't to be a museum, but it's not about storming the barricades any more. It's about the most exciting, innovative and urgent creativity. There's a need to keep rethinking what's happening.

"When you don't have a permanent collection, you have a real responsibility to think about what is a contemporary moment. One of the reasons the ICA still exists and is still important is because we have exhibitions and talks programmes, major thinkers and artists and writers. The combination of all these different spheres means we have an ongoing conversation with the public."

The arrival of Tate Modern in 2000 might have been seen as a rival for the ICA's audience, but Mr Eshun insists that has not been the case.

"The Tate has grown the audience for art," he said. "Also, we do different things. The ICA excels at showing artists at an early stage in their careers. We don't do mid-career retrospectives."

That theme will play a central part in the remaining anniversary celebrations.An exhibition opens in May of 60 young artists. Each artist will stage a two-week solo show over a six-month period, providing a career launchpad like those offered by the gallery to so many of today's most famous artists.

"We're bringing on to the public stage artists who we think have a significant role to play in the future," said Mr Eshun. "For me that's a really exciting statement of intent."

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate