Have Britain’s art institutions aged gracefully?

It is an exceptional anniversary year for British arts institutions. In London, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is 75 years old and the Barbican 40, the Midlands Art Center (MAC) in Birmingham will be 60 years old, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) 45 years old and BALTIC in Gateshead, the baby of the group , celebrates its 20th anniversary. After 12 years of austerity and pandemic funding cuts, no one is splurging on Urs Fischer’s party candles or Keith Haring’s buntings. Still, this seems like a moment worth marking, if only to ask how the founding principles of these institutions hold up. Have they aged – in the best possible way – shamefully?

New public arts organizations are often promoted in socio-economic terms: to bring money to a region and stimulate employment; contributing to quality of life and improving mental health; to enrich education. Artists and their concerns may seem low priority. Founded by artists, poets and critics in 1947 (as a largely educational charity), the ICA was envisioned as a radical forum for exchange between artists and thinkers from all disciplines.

Bengi Ünsal, 2022. Courtesy of Anna Tatzlaff

“I don’t see too much difference between what it was founded for and where I want to take it,” Bengi Ünsal, the new director of the ICA, told me over the phone. “It was founded to give space to interdisciplinary artists who are out of the ordinary, who don’t find their place in the mainstream. And we still need an independent space where artists can reflect their world. Under Ünsal’s tenure, the ICA will shift from discussing social justice, central to programming under former director Stefan Kalmár, to focus once again on artists and the arts. Ünsal adds that, despite a legacy of concerts from everyone from The Clash to FKA Twigs, over the past six years, she hasn’t really considered the ICA a concert hall. Describing the institution’s audience as “our future artists”, it seeks to welcome gender-fluid practitioners working at the intersection of music, film, dance and visual arts.

The UK has seen waves of institution building since the Second World War. The first came amid a slow regeneration in the post-war period and brought us the ICA and, several decades later, the Barbican – a world-class utopian arts center at the heart of brutalist development in a bomb-stricken area of ​​central London. The most recent emerged at the turn of this century under the New Labor government, with culture imagined as a regenerating balm for bereaved post-industrial towns.

BALTIC, Gateshead. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

BALTIC in Gateshead is the product of this most recent wave: launched (according to founding director Sune Nordgren) as “a new breed of contemporary art space” in 2002, it occupies a prominent former industrial building on the river Tyne, imagined as “an art factory” for international creatives. Three years before its opening, the ambition of BALTIC was expressed in an installation by Anish Kapoor – Taratantara (1999) – an extensive flared vaginal passageway of red PVC running the full length of the eviscerated building.

Sarah Munro, director since 2015, has steered BALTIC through less bloated times and bluntly describes the current situation, as we speak, as “a lot less resources and a lot more complexity.” She had to double her self-generated income to stay stable; meanwhile, the surrounding community has been hit hard. BALTIC was founded on the principle of culture-driven regeneration, but Munro invests in the urgent needs of a local population rather than blue sky thinking. “Everyone has the right to have a cultural life,” she says, describing BALTIC’s current policy as “radical hospitality.” Fulfilling this belief has meant bringing the art to the community rather than making the building the center of all activity. The pandemic cuts will impact programming, but Munro hopes this will be reflected in the frequency rather than the quality of exhibits, even if that means just one major international exhibit each year.

Jean Akomfrah
Jean Akomfrah, The unfinished conversationn, 2013, film still. Courtesy: © John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery, London

While BALTIC was started as a gesture of downtown regeneration, MAC was founded to meet the needs of a residential area. The uniqueness of its location – and the diversity of the surrounding community – gives the MAC its distinct personality. As director Deborah Kermode tells me, “91% of our audience is Birmingham locals: we don’t have a tourist market. The MAC began as an arts organization for young people – a space where neighborhood children could come on their own – and Kermode still describes the MAC as “an arts center surrounded by a college of higher education”.

The centerpiece of the MAC’s anniversary program is John Akomfrah’s The unfinished conversation (2012) – a three-screen cinematic portrait of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who moved to the area in 1964, two years after the launch of the MAC. “I think the most adventurous ideas happen at the margins, not at the center,” says Kermode. For her, the key to institutional health lies in strict focus: understanding what you do well. “It is impossible for an organization to offer everything.”

Thijs Biersteker, Wither, 2022, installation view, Barbican, London. Courtesy of the artist and Barbican

YSP was also founded on educational ideals. Between 1948 and 2007, the site housed a pedagogical and artistic college, animated by egalitarian values ​​nourished by both Quakerism and the Bauhaus. Peter Murray, founding director of YSP, was a lecturer, first installing sculptures in the park and opening them to the public in 1977. Murray remained at the helm for 45 years, acquiring land until the park of sculptures covers 500 acres. In March of this year he retired and was replaced by former program director Clare Lilley. Lilley told me she felt “the founding principles haven’t really changed – Peter set out to create a space that would make art and landscape accessible to a wider audience”. YSP’s collection tended to be masculine and pale, which Lilley strove to correct. “We certainly know where the gaps are: these are the areas we will be focusing on over the next few years.”

In 2021, current and former employees of the Barbican shared painful experiences of everyday racism within the institution in the ‘Barbican Stories’ report. Their stories revealed a pattern of BAME staff being hired into junior positions but not progressing through the organization. Contributors reported that their opinions were not valued and they were overlooked for promotion. The subtext was that the Barbican wanted to appear to change but would not actually accept change on a significant level. A new report is being produced for 2022: Asked how things have gone since the first report, the ‘Barbican Stories’ spokesperson replied via email: ‘Still not good enough’.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2020. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; photography: Dave Pickersgill

As Kermode points out, it is important to keep in mind the specifics of an institution. Not every organization can do everything. But beyond the founding principles, longevity also requires flexibility: the strength to accept change. While we wish these important and rewarding institutions many happy returns, we can also hope that they nurture and listen to the generations that will carry them into the future.

Main image: Barbican, London. Courtesy of Getty Images

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