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Evading Identity: The Institute of Contemporary Art

Anne Massey and Gregory Muir’s book delves into 22 years of the ICA’s slippery history to make sense of its elusive status

What is The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)? This question preoccupied the founding members in 1946 because while they were very sure of what it was not (not the Tate, not the Arts Council, not the British Council), a clear idea of what it was, evaded them. It continues to evade the ICA today. This book, a review of the first 22 years of the Institute, emphasises its ‘restless’ character. Gregor Muir, the current executive director, in his foreword describes the ICA as ‘possessing a unique slipperiness that … eludes stasis’.

However the book is part of an effort by the Institute to make sense of the ‘slipperiness’ of its history. It was published to coincide with the Tate Modern’s Richard Hamilton retrospective, which was itself coupled with a re-installation at the ICA of two of the most well known exhibitions that Hamilton collaborated on in the 1950s – An Exhibit (with Victor Passmore) and Man, Machine and Motion. The ICA is endeavouring to link its history with the ‘luminaries’ of British art history – to gain historical legitimacy through a place in the art history canon. However, the book itself, written by design historian Professor Anne Massey, takes a much more innovative approach to the history of the ICA.

Structured around the chronology of exhibitions mounted by the ICA between 1946 and 1968, the book approaches the exhibitions, as well as the programme of talks, seminars, concerts, film screenings and parties, as evidence of the various and changing ideas of what the Institute was. Rather than telling a story of the progression of British art, Massey explores the ICA’s place in the broader cultural context of postwar London. For example, accompanying the details of the exhibitions are contemporary reviews from magazines and newspapers, including the AR, showing that the ICA cannot be understood independently of the small world of artists, architects and critics in London in the 1950s and ’60s. Massey also strives to put the women back into the narrative of the Institute, particularly Dorothy Morland who was director in the 1950s and Jane Drew who was the architect of the ICA’s interior at Dover Street and instrumental in the move to the Mall.

As well as emphasising the cultural context, the book looks at the importance of material culture, architecture and interior design in the construction of an identity for the ICA. Together with archive photographs of the exhibitions, the book includes ephemera surrounding the exhibitions – posters, catalogues, invitation cards and programmes – which were all fastidiously designed for each event. The collective effect of this graphic material was a visual identity for the ICA based on modern typography. The book is trying to move away from the dominance of ‘great artists’ in the story of the ICA, by focusing on the social and material dimensions of the Institute.

Selected archive material from the book was used in an off-site exhibition at the ICA’s first premises, 14-17 Dover Street, now Dover Street Market. Taken together the exhibition and the book present the ICA’s premises, the buildings that have housed it, as a previously overlooked dimension of the Institute’s history. The buildings can be used to trace the changing ideas about the Institute’s function and role within art and culture.

The initial, temporary locations were symptomatic of the ad-hoc and informal character of the organisation, which in 1946 was a group of friends and colleagues interested in promoting modern art and design. In 1950 Dover Street was secured and this permanent location embodied the founding members’ aim to create a ‘home’ for contemporary modern artists, musicians, architects, filmmakers and writers. It also acted as a concrete example to ‘the public’ of what Modernism was. The interior of the Georgian building, refitted by Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry, Eduardo Paolozzi and Terence Conran. was an expression of

this self-conscious, evangelical agenda to educate the public about Modernism, while simultaneously offering a ‘hearth’ for modern artists. The move to Nash House on the Mall in 1968 marked a shift to a more professionalised, commercialised culture at the ICA.

In her conclusion, Massey describes the book as an effort to ‘contain and explain’ the history of the ICA and what it shows is how the spaces that have contained the ICA can be used to explain what the ICA was. 

Institute of Contemporary Arts: 1946-1968

Authors: Anne Massey & Gregor Muir

Publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art

Price: £20

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