Q&A

Gregor Muir on Making the ICA London a Museum "By Artists, for Artists"

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Gregor Muir on Making the ICA London a Museum "By Artists, for Artists"
George Grosz, "Stickmen Meeting Members of the Bourgeois" (1946), on view now at the ICA

London's Institute of Contemporary Arts was in dire straits when Gregor Muir came on board as its new director in 2011. Just two years earlier, the institution was on the brink of closure, only pulling through after a $1.9 million government bailout. When it came time to appoint a new leader, the ICA found in Muir a well-respected curator with a powerful network of connections. And no wonder—over his two-decade career he had played almost every role in the art industry, from artist (Camberwell College of Arts, class of 1988) to writer (of the YBA memoir Lucky Kunst) to curator (at Tate Modern) to, most recently, dealer (Hauser & Wirth). 

So far, Muir has nearly tripled the number of ICA patrons, according to The Art Newspaper, and has been drawing crowds with shows of popular artists like Jacob Kassay and the provocative new drawing exhibition "Keep Your Timber Limber," which brought out 1,200 visitors to its opening earlier this week. In the fall, he will stage Bay Area conceptualist Lutz Bacher's first major solo show in the United Kingdom. 

Muir spoke to Artspace about his plans to revitalize the ICA by bringing to the forefront the artists and avant-garde work that other museums might not touch.

What were your main goals when you began working with the ICA, and where are you at in achieving them today?

The ICA is one of the most important spaces for artists in London, and its identity is really based on the idea that it was founded by artists for artists. Since the late 1940s, it's been a place where artists, thinkers, writers, and composers have been able to create their own space, so while a museum show means one thing and a commercial gallery means another,  the ICA is that great space in between. The most important development has been the return of so many artists to the ICA, not just to our openings but to our talks and events—and they are known to frequent the bar. It's important that they're showing here, hanging out in the building, and really taking part. In recent years I've felt the return of an artist-centered approach to things, and I like to think that everyone who crosses the threshold into the ICA becomes an artist, because they're close to the place where artists are and where art is being talked about.

How is this philosophy reflected in your exhibition program?

The exhibition program that we've been following in recent years is itself a reflection of an ICA business plan going back many years. When the institution moved in 1968 from Dover Street, where it had become synonymous with the founding of Pop art, they clearly set out a business plan that they were there to support contemporary artists working in a whole range of media, including painting, sculpture, graphic design, crafts, opera, ballet, radio, and television. It was a very interesting proposal, and it was centered on ideas of contemporary artists being engaged in interdisciplinary practice, with the ICA helping them break the mold and find new art forms. To that end, we did an exhibition about TV, we did shows with Lucky PDF, a sound art exhibition by Bruce Nauman, and an amazing online project called soundworks, where 130 artists contributed sound-art files. Then we went on to look at more recent photography, thanks to Juergen Teller.

On Wednesday, the ICA opened "Keep Your Timber Limber," an exhibition of sexually and politically charged works on paper from artists as historic as Tom of Finland to the much younger Cary Kwok. How does this show reflect the institution's larger mission? 

I'm interested in grounding the ICA in its incredible past, since its an institution that has shown truly great and provocative artists—be it Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Hermann Nitsch, or so on—and yet is still incredibly forward-looking. So, for the current drawings show, we worked with the young curator Sarah McCrory, who used to be the Frieze Projects curator. She was great to work with because she really wanted to get under the surface of what might be a very genteel art form. I'm glad to see it is raising eyebrows, as it were. 

Cary Kwok, for instance, draws men at the point at which they are ejaculating, but it goes beyond what a photograph can depict; it shows extraordinary artistic intent and draws us into it through this incredible craft and technique using simply a biro pen. They are excruciatingly arrived at, highly labor-intensive. Judith Bernstein uses the image of the phallus in a more political sense, almost as a kind of activist logo. Again with Margaret Harrison: she uses drawings of a sexual nature to put forth a feminist observation. Of course, Tom of Finland's works have defined queer sexuality and have done so since the late 1940s. What's great about the way Sarah put the show together is that, from the perceived-to-be polite notion of drawings, we get to a truly culture-shifting and life-changing position.

How did you go from being an artist, palling around with Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas during the YBA heyday, to directing a major institution?

That's an interesting question for me personally, because I sometimes forget that I went from artist to writer to curator to the institution to the commercial-gallery setting and then back to the institution. All I can say is, it has given me many great lessons in life. The one lesson I'll never forget is what it was like to be an artist, to be in the position of creating things and struggling to gain attention. So I still feel a great affinity for artists because I understand how completely difficult it is to be one. At the end of the day, I will, for instance, sit with artists before their shows open because I know they must be feeling very awkward and uncomfortable about bringing their vision to a wider public. My job sometimes is to help them deliver their vision, and I think that, after all my various transitions, there seems to be one constant and that's being there for the artists. 

Paul Schimmel recently did a sort of reverse version of your career trajectory, going from a public institution, the Los Angeles MOCA, to Hauser & Wirth. As we increasingly see this kind of movement between the spheres, do you think the boundaries are beginning to fade away?

Yeah, I do. I think we are living in a period in which there are healthy transitions to be made. One shouldn't create such rigid boundaries that movement can't occur, but one also has to be mindful of the potential for too dominant a market in light of just how fragile things are for the institutions at the moment. But one thing that's important to underscore is how vital commercial galleries are to the art world and artists directly, and how they are great producers and commissioners of new work. They are engaged on a day-to-day basis with artists, while institutions come at this from the point of view of being the gatekeepers of what we understand to be important in this world. 

When I made my transition from the Tate to Hauser & Wirth, it was really talked about. I think now it's just understood that it can happen. I think people who move from private to public are eager to support the public with all they've learned in the private sphere—that's certainly why I'm doing it. It's sometimes frowned upon, but I'd suggest that people consider the good work that the commercial galleries do on a daily basis. They're doing a lot of work for artists. 

How important is it for the ICA to identify and introduce new artists and movements?

The ICA is there to support the marginal and the difficult, as well as the overlooked. It can be from any period or generation so long as we find the work itself is urgent and meaningful to the present cultural debate. This can occur from the perspective of artists both living and dead, young and old, male and female. We support the provocative and the challenging—for me, that's the definition of what we do. The best is when people say, "That's very ICA," meaning that we go into territory other institutions would struggle to do or would find difficult. We are also there to support the fragile and the niche and to bring what might be on the margins and might not always be in the marketplace into the fold.

What is your average day like?

Well, I can tell you about today. I woke up around 7 a.m. after having left work around 1 a.m. last night, which is when we held our gala dinner with about 170 people, thinking, "Oh my god, I have got to thank so many people." I literally arrived in the office with a large pot of coffee and drafted with my development team a list containing the names of some 70 or so individuals who I have to set about personally thanking. That's on top of meetings about future projects and meetings with people I want to get to know. I had a really nice lunch today with [Milan art dealer] Massimo de Carlo, who is taking a lot of interest in what we're going to be doing. I had a great meeting about future projects involving contemporary art in Israel, and we're meanwhile planning a huge project at Selfridges's old hotel. And, in the middle of all this, wonderful people such as yourself call and ask questions that need to be answered. Today I have three press interviews; there's a great sort of groundswell of interest in what we're doing. It's already been quite a week, but not untypical for the ICA. I've even managed to snatch just about 10 minutes in my own exhibition, which I love.

Tom of Finland, Untitled (1963), on view now at the ICA.

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