David Lister: The ICA has lost its cutting edge

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The Independent Online

Whatever the allegations of fear and loathing in Downing Street, Gordon Brown must in his darkest hours take comfort from the fact that he does not run the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The ICA is in turmoil. Redundancies have been followed by a no-confidence vote in the director Ekow Eshun. The result of it is not being made public, though one suspects that if it had been a ringing endorsement of Mr Eshun's leadership, it would have been made very public. Finances are clearly not in a good state, with £1m of cuts, and I hear that sponsorship is proving increasingly hard to get. This week one of the ICA's most senior staffers, its director of exhibitions, resigned, reportedly saying that he would stay only if Mr Eshun went.

Despite a high-profile leader in Mr Eshun, an even higher profile chairman in Alan Yentob, a yet higher profile location just down the road from Buckingham Palace in the Mall, a smart publicity department and a history to die for, the ICA is in crisis.

There is a number of small reasons for this. One, for example, is that its location, while enviable in many ways, does not get much in the way of passing trade, and an institution that would like to be in your face cannot put up provocative posters outside. That is because the one bit of passing trade the ICA does get is the Queen and visiting heads of state in their carriages. Strict rules govern what can be displayed on the Mall.

But there is a much bigger reason for the present crisis. The ICA has historically been the face of the avant-garde and cutting edge in British culture. It was when it was founded in the 1940s.It was with a vengeance in the 1960s.

But how can any one institution claim a monopoly on the cutting edge now? However daring the ICA is in the visual arts, the Tate or Whitechapel or Serpentine will do it just as well if not better. When the ICA ran the Beck's Futures art prize, everyone saw it as a poor man's Turner Prize and it faded away. The reputation that the ICA once enjoyed as being in the vanguard of culture is now shared with more institutions that one can count. No one really knows now what the ICA stands for, and few know precisely what it does – some art, some film, some talks, some rock gigs and a nice bar.

What its battered leaders have to realise is that it has to find a new raison d'être. It has to redefine what is cutting edge, not be for ever chasing the Tate Moderns of this world. I would suggest that there are two ways to do this. Principally, it could become the gallery for unknowns: the next generation of artists, film-makers, etc. It could be the gallery that spots talent and creates stars, rather than chasing the same "names" as everyone else.

The other thing that it should do is give its talks and debates a higher profile and ensure that they address some of the rarely discussed issues in culture today – the fear, for example, of staging plays or writing books or making films that offend Islamic fundamentalists. The ICA could become the place for mentioning the unmentionable.

It needs to redefine the cutting edge to make itself distinctive again, or it will surely die.

A mouse is in the house

What, I wonder, do Kim Cattrall and other visiting stars make of the dressing rooms in West End theatres. A survey of West End actors and stage managers has found that over three-quarters of them say their theatres suffer from vermin. More than 60 per cent of the actors questioned say there is evidence of vermin infestation in their dressing rooms. Equity general secretary Christine Payne told The Stage newspaper: "I knew it was bad out there, but I am really shocked by this. These findings mean that tonight, over 600 actors and stage managers will go to work knowing that they will probably see and smell vermin, both living and decomposing, in their workplace.

In response, the Society of London Theatre chief executive Richard Pulford said: "I am disappointed that Equity has highlighted the one thing about which its members were dissatisfied. There's an enormous amount of satisfaction reflected in the answers to the survey which it has not acknowledged."

Quite right. What's a little infestation of vermin when you're getting in your costume to go on stage? Sing and be happy. Mr Pulford is wasted as chief executive of Solt. He should be writing a jolly musical.

Don't know their Verdi from their elbow

I wrote recently querying the BBC's commitment to opera on BBC1 and BBC2. The danger of a dedicated arts channel like BBC4 can be a consequent lack of arts on the main channels with much larger audiences.

Earlier this week I was taken to task for so doing by Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor, Arts, BBC Vision. (On what date, by the way, did that quaint old word "television" go out of fashion?) Mr Bell wrote in the letters column of The Independent that there would be screenings on BBC2 this year of "Othello, Boccanegra and Don Giovanni".

I hate to be a nit-picker, but there isn't actually an opera called Othello. That's the play. The opera is called Otello. Also, Boccanegra, unless he is now a pupil at a public school, is more usually known by his full name of Simon Boccanegra. If the BBC wants to boast of its opera-loving credentials, it should brush up on its Verdi.