Artist claims Institute of Contemporary Arts race show breaks rules about politics

It is a publicly-funded arts centre with charitable status that has shown paintings by Francis Bacon, staged a lecture by T.S. Eliot, screened films by Derek Jarman and organised a concert by David Bowie since it was founded in 1946.

But the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London is now facing accusations that it has become a political platform – contravening both its own founding commitment to dedicating itself to the arts and Charity Commission rules which state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”.

British artist Alexander Adams wrote last week to the ICA, the Charity Commission and Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, to complain that the ICA’s forthcoming exhibition on “societal and institutional racism” is “an apparent infraction” of regulations by a registered charity.

He argues that the ICA is “abusing its position as an arts venue with registered charity status in order to satisfy the personal political agendas of staff”.

He has compiled a long list of recent ICA events with apparent political agendas, but his anger is now sparked by an exhibition titled “War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights”, opening this week.

Its online description states that, through archival material, documentary photography and film, the show will “chronicle the impact of various forms of state violence and institutional racism targeted at Britain’s Black communities since the mass arrival-upon-invitation of West Indian migrants in the late 1940s”.

Mr Adams, whose work is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, among other public institutions, told the Sunday Telegraph: “Not a solitary sign of art in this display. This is an explicitly political campaign by a registered charity.”

In his letter of complaint, he wrote: “The press release does not mention art material as being included in the display, which is wholly political/social/legal in content, format and intention… Political campaigning (direct or by proxy) by the ICA is an infraction of… the ICA Memorandum of Association and prohibited by [Charity Commission] guidance.”

He added: “The majority of the British population do not regard political activity as art.”

The ICA’s 1947 Memorandum of Association states: “The objects for which the Company is established are to promote the education of the community by encouraging the understanding, appreciation and development of the arts generally.” The ICA receives around £878,000 a year from Arts Council England.

Mr Adams believes that political events and issues should be debated, but not in an institution devoted to the arts.

He is just as critical of the ICA for its 2018 staging of a talk by Chelsea Manning, jailed in 2013 for leaking US military secrets to WikiLeaks. 

He said that the event was “completely unrelated to art” and wrote then to the ICA, the DCMS and the Culture Select Committee: “The conclusion one draws is that the event was expressly political… The press release describes Manning as ‘a global figure aligning with the historic mission as well as the current work of the Institute’, which draws an explicit link between the guest’s social-political activism and the ICA’s activity.”

He did not receive responses to his criticisms. The Jackdaw, the arts magazine, published a letter from the ICA’s director, Stefan Kalmár, describing the ICA as “a place to progress challenging ideas that influence the arts”. 

In the 18th century, William Hogarth, the British painter, took aim at political corruption and chicanery at its worst, and Francisco de Goya, the Spanish master, painted savage satires.

But Mr Adams argues that they created works that can be appreciated for their artistic skill, beyond political messages: “Activism has now got a different character from political art of the past… The problem with Post-Modernism is that it opened the door to outright political activity without artistic talent. I’m fine about this happening in private venues or commercial galleries. I just don’t think that public money should be going into it.” 

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the arts watchdog, endorsed Mr Adams’s criticisms: “Such state-sanctioned politicising of art has left no space for purely artistic or aesthetic content, which is increasingly treated as an inherently reactionary contamination – much as any member of the country’s still overwhelming white population is taken to be a component part of a racially oppressive apparatus.”

While Mr Dowden declined to comment, the Charity Commission said: “We take all concerns raised with us seriously."

An ICA spokesman said: "As our Memorandum states, the ICA’s purpose is not simply to present the arts to the public but also to offer an insight into what drives the development of the arts through an awareness of the varying contexts in which the contemporary arts are created….The forthcoming exhibition… is entirely in line with our founding purpose… and adheres to the guidelines set out by the Charity Commission.”

Hearing of the ICA’s response, Mr Adams said: "If the ICA is permitted to use the ‘ ontextualisation’ argument, then it is freed of all restraints and can engage in any non-art activity. In that case, our public art venues are living on borrowed time before they fall to political activism. The ICA is making a mockery of company regulation, public funding and charity status, knowing that it will not be held to account by timid authorities."

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