‘Come as You Are’: How ICA London’s Director Is Rejuvenating the Museum… by Hosting Genre-Bending Late-Night Parties

In an era of bootstrapping, director Bengi Ünsal is turning to live events and thinking outside of the box.

Bengi Ünsal, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Courtesy of the ICA and Ünsal.

Bengi Ünsal is adamant about adding that forgotten “s” back to the institution she’s been leading since March last year. It is the Institute of Contemporary Arts—plural. Often dubbed the ICA, the institution has been the cradle for some of the greatest creative minds from various disciplines since its inception 75 years ago. But in recent years, the ICA has often been perceived as a visual art museum.

Ünsal wants to correct this misconception. “The ICA is not just [about] contemporary art. No, it has always been [about] arts,” the director told Artnet News. “We have two cinemas. We also have a concert venue. We do amazing performances, visual art, and theatre pieces. We do nightlife and we do concerts. We are not just one thing.”

Indeed, the ICA has always positioned itself as a leading space for contemporary culture of all kinds, and bringing on Ünsal aims to allow for a “rebalancing” of the institute’s “multidisciplinary program,” according to ICA’s statement on Ünsal’s appointment. The 47-year-old comes from a music background, having worked in the industry in her native Turkey prior to leading Salon IKSV in Istanbul; she moved to London to become the head of contemporary music at Southbank Centre in 2016.

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Exterior of the the ICA in London. Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

The institution’s 75th anniversary celebrations run from now until April 2023, featuring an action-packed program that is saturated with live events, from music and artistic performances to parties and late-night raves. Its birthday party, “P-R-E-S-E-N-T,” takes place on February 1. (The ICA has a license to stay open late.)

There are also numerous upcoming showcases of films, moving image works, and visual arts exhibitions to look forward to, including R.I.P. Germain‘s first U.K. institutional solo exhibition, opening on February 21. Recalibrating the ICA’s multidisciplinary program—since the departure of the visual arts-focused director Stefan Kalmár—isn’t merely a slogan. It is also the institution chair Wolfgang Tillmans’s wish to bring audiences back after the pandemic, and “put the ICA back on a sustainable footing,” as he told the Guardian.

Bring the party back: INFERNO, ICA, 2020. Photography by Anne Tetzlaff. Courtesy the ICA.

Bring the party back: INFERNO, ICA, 2020. Photography by Anne Tetzlaff. Courtesy the ICA.

To Ünsal, this new direction for the ICA has another layer of meaning: to reshape the perspective of contemporary culture and the way how we understand the idea of artists in the 21st century.

“This is a place that looks at artists not in a boxed way… We don’t define artists as visual artists, music artists, etc.,” Ünsal said, adding that the ICA’s main audiences are aged 35 or younger. “This is even more important especially now [for] the young generation. They don’t want to define themselves with art forms.”

Events where people can come together is especially important as people emerge from prolonged social distancing and lockdowns, the director noted. “We are a platform for artists. I don’t care if you are a painter or a musician. Come as you are,” she said.

One of the ICA 75th anniversary posters, featuring the award-winning actor Tilda Swinton, who is a member of the ICA board. Courtesy the ICA.

One of the ICA 75th anniversary posters, featuring the award-winning actor Tilda Swinton, who is a member of the ICA board. Courtesy the ICA.

“Looking back at the day when it first started, the artists were trying to find a space that would be an alternative to the Royal Academy because they thought it was too boxy,” Ünsal said. In recent years, notable exhibited artists include Sonia Boyce, Neil Beloufa, and Bernadette Corporation.

There is a logistical aspect to hosting events and parties, too. The approach will hopefully boost its revenue: 21 percent (£862,441/$1 million last year) of the ICA’s overall budget comes from Arts Council England, but, like many of its neighbors around town, it is facing deep funding cuts. In November 2022, the Arts Council England decided to reallocate the funds to arts bodies beyond London. The ICA has received support from the U.K. government’s Culture Recovery Fund, but is nevertheless facing a loss totalling £600,000 ($742,668) over the next three years.

“It is challenging. I’m not going to lie,” Ünsal noted of the financial situation, adding that the funding has also been eaten up by staggering inflation, a rising cost of living, and surging energy prices. Her breadth of experience when it comes to staging self-financed events might be a lifeline. ICA’s anniversary auction last fall organized with Sotheby’s, was also a major help: it raised more than £2 million ($2.4 million).

R.I.P. Germain, <i>Lekan's Genie</i> (2023). Courtesy the artist and the ICA.

R.I.P. Germain, Lekan’s Genie (2023). Courtesy the artist and the ICA.

The ICA is also open to partnerships with foreign institutions. Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture commissioned Taiwanese artist Yen Chun Lin’s installation and performance Here, a nut falls, which ran from November 27 to December 4, 2022; the fashion brand Bottega Veneta will be supporting their February 1 birthday bonanza; the ticketing app Dice is supporting its music program. Ünsal is also in talks with other foreign institutions on future partnerships.

“We are definitely in the middle of a transition. I think we are now together on a path,” said Ünsal, eyeing the London skyline through the large windows of her office. “I think we can all see clearly now, and we are going there together.”

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