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.
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 .
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.
“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).
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 , 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.”
More Trending Stories:
Researchers Used Facial Recognition Technology to Identify a Long-Lost Painting by Raphael
Oops! A Swiss Museum Has Lost Two Old Masters Paintings That It Sent for Cleaning
An Evicted Princess Is Refusing to Vacate a Roman Villa That’s Home to Caravaggio’s Only Ceiling Mural
The Heir of a German-Jewish Collector Is Suing the Guggenheim for the Return of a Prized Picasso Painting—Or $150 Million
‘It’s About Who’s Been Able to Tell the Story’: Curator and Author Katy Hessel on Writing an All-Women History of Art
Amid a Feverish Market for Her Prismatic Paintings, Japanese Art Dynamo Etsu Egami Is Keeping a Cool Head
Paleontologists in India Have Hit on an Epic Find: Hundreds of Bowling Ball-Sized Titanosaur Eggs
An Extremely Intelligent Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s A.I. Art Extravaganza at MoMA Is Fun, Just Don’t Think About It Too Hard