Ekow Eshun, the executive director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, is leaving his post next March. "I’ve been at the ICA for five years — in March, it’ll be almost six," he told ARTINFO UK. "I’ve never had any particular intention to stay longer than that." Eshun has said he was put under no pressure to step down, but his departure nonetheless feels like the last episode in a saga that has seen the ICA verging on bankruptcy.
Last year was a difficult year for the institution. In October, the Arts Council invested £1.2 million ($1.85 million) to keep it afloat; in December, staff were informed that the organization had to cut its £2.5 million ($3.86 million) salary bill by £1 million ($1.54 million). The recession was blamed. The ICA had its 60th-anniversary fundraising auction at Sotheby’s the same weekend that Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the sale raised just above half of what was expected. Significant sponsors went bust, and it looked like the venerable gallery would have to close its doors.
At the time, press commentary focused on whether or not this cradle of the British avant-garde had simply outlived its purpose, but, writing in Mute, art critic JJ Charlesworth saw Eshun’s directorship as a direct cause of the ICA’s ills. He criticized Eshun’s reliance on private sponsorship, his cultivation of a "cool" ICA brand, and his focus on a cross-disciplinary approach that was put in place "at the cost," Charlesworth wrote, "of a loss of curatorial expertise."
So where are we now? Is the ICA still threatened with disappearance, ARTINFO UK asked Eshun? "No," the executive director categorically responded. "We’ve restructured the organization; we’ve redesigned our financial reporting system; we’ve created a five-year business plan which projects the ICA ahead until 2015; we’ve cut costs and hired staff in key positions across the organization. We are in a very positive situation."
It’s good to hear. The ICA has played a crucial role as a center for artistic experiment since its creation in 1947. Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock, Yoko Ono, Peter Blake, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Wong Kar Wai are all part of its history. Some have argued that, in the last few years, the visual art program had lost its edge — and Eshun provoked widespread outrage when he closed the live art department for its "lack of cultural urgency" in 2008 – but the ICA proved experimental with Nought to Sixty, a six-month-long program involving 60 young artists. "One of the key things I’ve been trying to do in the last couple of years," says Eshun, "is make sure that the ICA works in tandem with the direction and movements of culture, which is important when you have an organization that has the word 'contemporary' in its name."
Having a finger on the pulse must be second nature for Eshun. A journalist and cultural commentator, he started as an assistant editor for the now-defunct trendsetting magazine The Face and became, at 28, the youngest editor of the also-gone glossy Arena. He regularly contributes to the BBC’s Newsnight Review and was described by writer Anthony Gardner as a "sleek cultural Exocet, streaking to the heart of whichever film or book he is discussing." His brother, Kodwo Eshun,is nominated for this year’s Turner Prize as part of the Otholith Group (together with Anjalika Sagar).
The executive director has also written a book, Black Gold of the Sun, which was nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2006. He now leaves the ICA — he states the press release — "to write a new book, continue his broadcasting commitments, and develop new initiatives in the cultural sector."
Considering Eshun’s orientation towards the mainstream, one is left to wonder if he was really the person to lead a venue that has prided itself on experimentation. Then again, who would be the person? An unsuccessful applicant to the director’s position told The Guardian that Eshun was brave to take the job: "To run [the ICA] requires the skills of a scoutmaster and a sheepdog, combined with those of a visionary, a spin-doctor and a fundraiser. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of any one individual."
The ICA is built on a contradiction: the double necessity to be avant-garde and accessible, to be edgy and yet able to justify public funding. Eshun has gone for the "accessible" side of this insolvable equation and, in many ways, he has succeeded. The ICA press office trumpets that, during his tenure, the audience has increased by 38 percent, and the Web site has five times more visitors. Eshun also abolished the entrance fee, a move that was widely welcomed despite the argument that it led to more financial troubles — a charge that he denies.
If, as Eshun claims, the ICA is on the road to recovery, his record isn’t as poor as some would like us to believe. However, it hasn't been an easy ride. Does he have any advice for his successor? "I’m sure, loads," he laughs. "But they would have to be appointed first."