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The Director of London’s ICA, Stefan Kalmár, on why publicly funded institutions must respond to the emergencies defining our world today

This summer, I went directly from Basel to Palermo – two vastly different worlds. The first is the home of Art Basel, the second the host of the 12th edition of Manifesta. While separated by a flight of only two hours, the two cities could not be further apart – from an evening fundraiser for a Basel museum with kilos of Siberian caviar to an exhibition that addresses the urgency of the geographical location of Palermo, one of the main sites of Europe’s refugee crisis. The first place is animated by the trends and speculations of the market, the second by the politics of belonging and co-existence. That is, where does one have the right to be?

This question raises a number of other important ones: what role do museums and exhibitions, like Manifesta, have to play in addressing these divergent situations? How do we manoeuvre the increase of private influence towards fulfilling a greater public role? How can we build a new social contract? Can we bite the hand that feeds us? In the current institutional set-up, museums increasingly tend to cater to the clientele that funds them rather than the public that they were established to serve.

We should think of this current predicament as the result of a calculated project that started almost 40 years ago. The planned dismantling of the entire public sector and, indeed, of politics itself by the administrations of Helmut Kohl in Germany, Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK has impacted health care, culture, social welfare, science and education – specifically arts education. The diminishment of arts education in schools in the UK is a particularly vicious example of this agenda, given that, in the 21st century, ideology and power manifest themselves primarily in the realm of the visual, rather than the textual. Hence, the removal of arts education is tantamount to an institutionalized programme of (visual) illiteracy.

One consequence of these developments is that institutions like London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), where I serve as director, function as a cultural and social reservoir for everything that the government has either withdrawn funding from or which has fallen through the cracks in an increasingly homogeneric and commercialized culture. Independent cinemas used to be far more commonplace in cities such as New York; now, there are fewer and fewer. Coinciding with this, we’ve seen independent film and performance move into the museum because their usual physical, public venues have disappeared and, with them, specific communities and knowledge.

This withdrawal of public funding has eroded any progressive consensus in Western democracies and, with it, any nuanced debate. The museum could help rebuild that public consensus by providing a space for sustained debate and the development of shared values. Herbert Read, one of the founders of the ICA, described in 1948 – 70 years ago – our institution’s goal as being one for the advancement of society; I believe it was no coincidence that we were founded in the same year as the UK’s National Health Service. Today our goal, as a public institution, must be to overcome our own institutionalized antagonisms, to rebuild community and expand on our original social, cultural and political ideas.

Now that we are living in a world where art, having been dragged into the gutter of the market, is no longer necessarily understood as advancing society, it is the museum’s responsibility to develop innovative models that are focused on re-instating the raison d’être of art by promoting a public discourse built around shared values. I look, for example, at readership-based fundraising models, like those of The Guardian or The Intercept. There are progressive ways for a business to thrive while increasing its own independence – for example, if only 10% of the ICA’s visitors were to say, ‘I value your independence so much that I would like to support you monthly with £16.66’, this would amount to £10 million additional funding for the ICA annually.

What would it look like if a major museum engaged in the development of self-sustainable, well-designed, social housing projects rather than lend its name to a tower of luxury penthouses – as with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the lavish 53W53 building? Our economic set-up today is geared to look to where the money is, not to where it isn’t. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that many people feel left behind, because few (within or without the art world) advocate for them. US museum entry fees remain exorbitant, and the old 1970s ideal of ‘Art for All’ appears long forgotten. So, why would anybody say: ‘This culture is for me’? Yes, it has become more difficult to penetrate each other’s communities, since we’re all living in our own algorithmic bubbles, but doing so remains the most critical task for museums and artists today. 

As told to Andrew Durbin, senior editor of frieze, based in New York, USA.

Main image: Coloco and Giles Clement, Becoming Garden, 2018, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: © the artists and Manifesta; photograph: Wolfgang Träger