The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Ekow Eshun
Ekow Eshun
Artistic Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Born in London in 1968, Ekow Eshun studied politics and history at the London School of Economics. At the age of 28 he became the youngest chief-in-editor ever for the men’s fashion magazine Arena. In 1999, he was chosen as “one of the most talented people in Britain under the age of 30 by The London Evening Standard, and since then he has made regular appearances in the major newspapers and magazines, TV and radio as a passionate advocate of contemporary arts. He was appointed Artistic Director of ICA in 2005, a post he continues to hold at present. He visited Japan in January 2007 on a study tour of Japanese contemporary art and culture hosted by the Japan Foundation.
the Institute of Contemporary Art
Presenter Interview
As the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) celebrates its 60th anniversary, what is the vision of its new artistic director? 
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of the Institute of Contemporary Art, the London-based institution that has long been known internationally among contemporary art lovers as a presenter of progressive works in a wide range of fields, from the fine arts and film to club music. As evidenced by its prominent headquarters on The Mall near Buckingham Palace, it is an institution with a strong sense of mission as a long-time supporter of the avant-garde spirit. We spoke to the new ICA artistic director, Ekow Eshun, who assumed the position a year and a half ago and is also active as a journalist. Here are some of the things he had to say about the central policies of the multi-faceted ICA and its present directions.
(Interviewed by Mariko Inaba in January, 2007 at the Japan Foundation, Tokyo)

Could you tell us how the ICA was founded?
The ICA was founded in 1947 by a group of artists, writers and poets, specifically at a time when Europe and rest of the world had just come out of the Second World War, just a few years after the Holocaust and Hiroshima. This group of artists, such as Picasso and T.S Eliot, got together and decided to create an institution based on a belief that art can help create a better future. Also specifically it was at the time when the museums and galleries in Britain, places like the British Museum and the Tate, focused on collective works of the past. So ICA became the first modernist arts institution to embrace people like Picasso, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and the idea was to bring together different areas – visual arts paintings, sculpture, poetry, literature and music – quite revolutionary and something that had never been realised before in Britain. So early members of ICA were Picasso, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas – it started like a club, really – and they believed the idea that the arts could show people a better way to think about who they are and how they live. That was the concept behind it, and 60 years later that’s still what we do.

What kind of facilities do you have and what are your activities like?
The ICA moved to the Mall in 1968. It is in a strange location in a way, it’s the same street as the Buckingham Palace, but it’s a good contrast for us. We work against tradition, showing difficult, controversial works or the statements of the time in the heart of the most traditional place in London. Before that, we had been based nearby in central London, but just had smaller or temporary spaces, because the idea was that these people could just come together. But when we came to the Mall we got proper government funding. Right now, about the third of our money comes from the Arts Council – meaning we are actually a charity, a public institution. The rest we raise ourselves anyway, as we want to do more, and to be ambitious as an organization.
Presently, the ICA has two cinemas, an art gallery, a theatre, and a room where we present talks, and we also have a bar, a club. Basically the building is an old, 19th century house, so it’s like we do different things in different rooms. It’s open until 2:00 a.m. In live music, we do gigs during the week and club nights on Thursdays and Fridays.
Since its inception, the ICA has always been interested in introducing new ideas, new cultures and arts not only from Britain. So over the years we have exhibited international artists like [action painter] Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring and [current video artist] Bill Viola, and many, many others. In the ’60’s we presented British pop artists, such as David Hockney and Peter Blake, who made their home at ICA. The important thing about the whole place is to bring together new ideas, arts and culture, so the artists who come out of there are interested in a popular, broader world. When we think about David Hockney or Peter Blake, their work is not just about fine art. They are interested in music, or politics even, and that is very much part of our character, because it always merged these different sets of thinking and radical ideas together.
In terms of personnel, we have about 80 people in total, including part-time staff. The ICA historically had always one director, but since I arrived we’ve split that role into two – the artistic manager, myself, and my colleague as the managing director to look after the finance – because it’s a complex organization. And it has been successful. So we make key decisions, and beneath us we have creative departments for film, talks, exhibitions and performing arts. We also have marketing and sponsorship departments, and each has their own separate teams to look after technical functions of the place. Then we have our board of directors that meets every two months to oversee the organization.

What kinds of visitors or audience do you have? And, do you have a membership system?
We have about 250,000 visitors a year. Our membership system is quite complicated, consisting of different levels, so we are now working on it at the moment to make it simpler. Now we have about 10,000 members who pay an annual fee. It’s a very strange historical setup. To get into the ICA you have to pay 2 pounds. We would like the ICA to be free, but because of our location, being on the Mall and near to the palace, and the fact that we are open until 2:00 in the morning and we serve drinks, the palace doesn’t like people just to come and go and spend all the night drinking. So we have to charge people to come in. We are still a private members’ club, really, meaning that the two pounds is just your membership for the day. But we have members who pay a single amount once for the whole year, and it gives them discounts on various things and free entry to the ICA. It means that we have a good relationship with such regular visitors, because we can talk to them much more easily about what we do in the future and so on.
Regarding our audience, I think we are lucky, basically. I think the big feature of our audience is that they are very young. In comparison to other arts institutions where the age range is maybe people in their 40s and 50s, for us most of them are from 18 to people in their 30s. Lots of them are students, or well-educated people, who keep coming back. The numbers of audience of course vary according to the exhibition or different films we have on, but they remain very young and excited. And that age group is usually interested in discovering the newest and most exciting things, which is a key to the ICA. It also gives us a good opportunity, a licence to be experimental, challenging and innovative.
For example, in music, now famous groups like the Clash, the Smiths, Scissor Sisters and Franz Ferdinand all gave their early gigs at the ICA, because we would always look for new, exciting talents to showcase. You always want to put on a hot band, but you also need to sell tickets at the same time, but our audience know who our bands are. The gig we do next week, for example, is a band isn’t that well-known yet, but by this time next year they will be really big. The three or four hundred people who are coming to hear them next week already know that they are hot and will be heard by a lot more people in years’ time. Our whole thing is to make sure that we are always the first, so our audiences can say, ‘oh, I saw it first, I knew them years ago.’ And this applies to other art forms, too. It’s all about ‘now.’ And, that’s why we like working at ICA – you know, it’s not so interesting to be in a place where everything is safe. It’s good to be in a space that takes risks, so I try to encourage our staff that if you really believed in something, you should do it.

That’s interesting, because your founders, thinking of them now, were all established, legendary figures, but they were interested in new ideas.
Yes, they were modernists. I think their whole belief was that you could create new culture – we think about a revolution in terms of the work they produced – and everything they did was about taking risks. So, although they were already known at that time, that’s what they founded their careers on. I first came to the ICA when I was 10 years old, my parents took me there for something, and it started to feel like a home for me. As a teenager, as a student, I used to go there to watch Sartre movies, French and Russian avant-garde, discovered books on philosophy or things that inspired me, all these things I really didn’t know about. It all happened without planning but turned out to be formative. The first thing you encounter when you walk into the ICA is the bookshop, and it’s an amazing place, because you can discover all these different theoretical perspectives. And our audience are very open to uncovering new ideas, new ways of thinking. So it’s almost like an education, and again we are not a place for everyone, that’s the reality there. But people who do visit regularly, I think they are passionate and think the same way as Eliot or Auden that art and culture are a way to see the world.

So you already have young and passionate audience, who are enthusiastic about new ideas – but to attract an even larger audience, do you have any special, extra marketing strategy?
What I would like to find ways is to attract bigger international audience. On a personal level, I sit on a board for the University of Arts, London that represents arts and fashion colleges in London. And what that makes me aware of is how many students are coming from countries like Japan or Korea. So, one of my next tasks is to send them a clearer message, and connect more of these creatively-minded people with what we do, because that’s what a city like London is about. It is an amazing place.

So many of your present or potential audience are young – what about seniors citizens?
We actually do get a more senior crowd for lots of the talks we do. We advertise them in different ways or newspapers. Actually, our talks programme is amazingly successful. The topics have to do with culture, politics, religion, identity – we talk about ideas of the day, and have an older audience age-wise.
The kind of speakers we have include the Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the prominent young British writer, Zadie Smith. We also recently had someone like the American feminist/writer/academic, Naomi Wolf, Tariq Ramadan, who is a very important Muslim scholar, Alain Badiou, a leading French philosopher at the moment and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is very fashionable. Basically, we are trying to find leading thinkers of the time. You don’t find anyplace else in London where speakers of such calibre are coming week after week presenting a wide range of ideas and debate. We are very lucky that the ICA has a great reputation for 60 years. When we ask someone to talk, they at least take it seriously and consider it an honour. It means that they are historically in the same path as all the other important cultural figures. To come and talk at the ICA is a measure of where you are. And the level of debate between those speakers and the audience is very high. After the talk people always go into the bar and speak for many hours. Sometimes the speakers join them and talk more, because they are all passionate about what they think and believe. We are very proud of it.
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