Interview Fairs Museums United Kingdom

The man who saved the ICA

Commercial experience was critical, he says

Gregor Muir, Executive director, the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Photo: Tristan Gregory/Camera Press

In today’s art world, most career shifts tend to be from the public to the commercial sector, but Gregor Muir bucked the trend when in January 2011, he left his directorship of Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery to become executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The move was all the more daring since at that point the ICA was threatened with closure due to a ballooning deficit and a question mark over future Arts Council funding. Now, nearly three years later, the ICA seems to be enjoying a turnaround in its fortunes and is a conspicuous presence at Frieze with events including the first major solo show of the American artist Lutz Bacher, a survey of the art dealer John Cheim’s other incarnation as an artist book designer and a well-received off-site show at the Old Selfridges Hotel which surveys London subculture from 1980s to the present. The Old Selfridges Hotel site is also the location for the ICA’s talk “Collecting Art in the Age of Digital Technology”, which takes place on Saturday, 19 October.

The Art Newspaper: You left what must have been a more lucrative job at Hauser & Wirth for the ICA. What made you want to take up the post?

Gregor Muir: I have a long affinity with the ICA, it entered my DNA very early on. It was where I saw the most important shows of the 1990s as well as extraordinary events such as Jeff Koons talking in the cinema to a handful of people. Everyone seems to have a memory of the ICA and a real attachment to the place: it can be a cross between a black sheep and somewhere that still makes people think the most about what they have just seen or experienced: the ICA has always been a thorn in everyone’s side, including its own at times.

Did you have to think hard before accepting the job?

It was actually quite immediate. First of all there was a feeling of anything I can do to help, because it is such an amazing pioneering venue. I really do see the ICA as an institute: we’re not a heavyweight establishment or a museum, we’re not a commercial gallery, we really are inhabiting a space between the two. So for me coming here was about making sure that we could be more fleet of foot, that the ICA could move faster and be more reactive. But I felt that was the great thing about the ICA, you just needed to blow the dust off this glistening machine—it was all still there, in perfect working order.

Nonetheless when you arrived, the ICA was evidently in crisis. What needed to be done to get it back on its feet?

I felt the key thing was to give the ICA back to artists. It wasn’t about bureaucracy and who was running it, it was about artists, and the artist’s voice had to be at its core. So first and foremost I worked on re-engaging artists, getting them in, talking to them, and in certain cases giving them the full run of the building, as with Pablo Bronstein, the first exhibition that I put on. Secondly it was about reconnecting the ICA with the public. So what Bronstein’s show came to represent was a kind of tearing down of the walls and an opening up and a call to artists and to the public to say reclaim this building as rightfully yours, it is an institute built by its members. I often found myself engaged in a form of marriage guidance counselling, because I felt at times that both artists and audiences needed to know that everything was well again, and now was the time to reconnect and get back on with each other.

It looked for a while as if the Arts Council might withdraw their funding altogether and when the grant came through it was reduced from £1.3m to £900,000…

When I arrived, we had a very limited window to represent the case for the ICA moving forward and when we received the announcement of our Arts Council grant I definitely remember feeling a sea change, it was like a vote of confidence. Now when I walk about the place there’s always this sense of hubbub and talk and discussion, and it is very different to how it was at one point. Because when the ICA is buzzing, that’s when it’s working.

Do you think it has helped that you came from a commercial as well as an institutional background?

You have to connect with London as well as the international art community and you have to understand that London at present is a matrix of collectors, of sponsors, patrons and VIPS as well as of artists, museums and institutions and other forms of public interest, and I think it has perhaps paid off for the ICA to have someone who is coming from a background where that experience can actually be put to use. A week at the ICA is like a week at no other place on God’s earth: you are working your way through this incredible cultural spectrum—from cinema to critical theory to contemporary visual art—it’s constant and ongoing and I find that really close to home because I am that kind of person: I’m a cultural omnivore.

“Lutz Bacher” and “Design by John Cheim”, ICA, The Mall, until 17 November; “A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now”, Old Selfridges Hotel, 1 Orchard Street, until 3 November; “Collecting Art in the Digital Age”, Old Selfridges Hotel, 19 October, 12.30pm

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