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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - Arts in Lockdown, In Conversation with Stefan Kalmár of the ICA

Posted on 12 November 2020

At the beginning of November, Stefan Kalmár, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) spoke with Amanda Gray, Partner in Art Law about the history of the ICA and its place in contemporary culture, as well as Stefan's experience as the Director there since 2017.

They discussed the impact of the pandemic on the art market, the institutional landscape in Britain and abroad and on the ICA itself, and the main challenges and plans for the future of the ICA. Stefan also spoke about the nomadic European Biennial Manifesta taking place this year in Marseille of which he is the co-curator.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

Amanda Gray

Lovely to see everyone.  Welcome everyone, I’m Amanda Gray, Partner in Art Law at Mishcon de Reya, Mishcon Private.  I’m going to be your host today.  Thank you so much for joining this Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  It’s one of a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals.  So, without further ado, it’s a great, great pleasure to be welcoming Stefan,  Stefan Kalmál, who is the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in The Mall.  He’s been the Director there since 2017 and most recently he co-curated Manifesta 13, the nomadic European biennial which took place this year in Marseille.  So delighted to have you with us Stefan, really nice to see you.  When we caught up on Friday you were in Marseille.  You are now back in sunny London, so, welcome back.  Before we go and start talking and drilling into talking about the ICA, can you tell me a bit more about your transition from… you were heading  up Artists Space in New York and before that you were at Kunstverein in Munich.  How does that overseas experience and perspective inform your role?  Because I believe, and correct me if I am wrong, but you are the first non-British director of the ICA, is that right?

Stefan Kalmál

That is correct, indeed.  Yeah, it’s really interesting because both organisation, Artists Space and the Kunstverein in Munich are governed in very different structures.  The Kunstverein is essentially an association, a co-op, which has a large pool of members, established in the late end of the 18th Century from an emerging new class that found its own means of representation through contemporary art and set up an association and the association is actually grass-roots run, meaning the members build a Board and the Board appoint a Director and there’s… so there’s a form of different accountability which might be interesting later when we discuss other aspects.  And then in comparison, New York, you have a Board that is very philanthropic driven in the special case of Artists Space which was always historically and predominantly a Board that is also composed of artists.  In our case, it was Rachel Harrison, Seth Price, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick… so, it was always 50:50 artist-led and donor-led but otherwise it is similar to a Board of a Corporation but yet not-for-profit. 

Amanda Gray

Do you think there are differences because I’m very interested that you’ve been… you’ve worked in New York, you’ve worked obviously in Europe, Berlin, over here in terms of in Marseille, the support or how arts institutions are supported, funded, looked after?

Stefan Kalmál

Yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s important to look at certain facts in a way.  It’s the Institute of Contemporary Arts is only to 20% funded by Government.  Most of European organisations of that scale are still funded by 70% to up to 90%. 

Amanda Gray

That’s a huge difference. 

Stefan Kalmál

So, this obviously speaks and in a condition of a crisis many are so reliant on commercial activity.  I mean in ticket sales, book shop sales and beverage.  Then obviously once you can’t through social distancing, through in general reluctance of audiences going into close environments then you obviously take a hit that is purely not sustainable in the long run if you only to 20% funded by Government.  Whereby my European colleagues all could operate their organisations through the crisis. 

Amanda Gray

Can you give me an overview of the last seven months and this is looking at the challenges, the surprises, what’s inspired you both within your role at the ICA and also planning sort of the pandemic, nomadic biennial that was in Marseille as well.  So, thinking about the two and running in parallel.  It’s been a roller coaster I think that’s fair to say for the last seven months of experiences. 

Stefan Kalmál

Yeah.  It’s right, it was a roller coaster to adapt but the question I always have wasn’t it before a roller coaster?

Amanda Gray

Yes, yeah. 

Stefan Kalmál

When we’re all working or when we are all caught up in a system that was so exhilarated that it exhausted everybody.  In a way that the bi-product of the acceleration is also the virus and that the same system that as it’s bi-product, our relation with nature, also produced all other sorts of conditions of how humans relate to each other.  So, I think that big break that we experienced while it does create confusion, but to understand the pre-pandemic time as normality and that we should go back to normality I can also not subscribe to that notion because I think me flying twice within 10 days to Los Angeles is anything but normal you know or that the level of art fairs and biennials was everything else but normal.  So, I think it is now upon us to understand and to define what the new normal will be moving forward and I think the combinations of the pandemic and the economical reality made visible through the pandemic that so many people are facing combined with the murder of George Floyd, have shed light on the systemic conditions that exist and define human relations for so many.  It is also the opportunity for us to reconsider, reconfigure and re-emerge differently than we did before. 

Amanda Gray

Yeah.  Can we talk a little bit more about Manifesta 13, which is in Marseille this year?  Was there anything in terms of going into lockdown apart from the delay that either affected the arts or the way Manifesta 13 operated?

Stefan Kalmál

There was a huge installation plan from Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who by biography is Polish, Catholic/Jewish, grew up in Paris.  In post-war Paris.  Is still, was still until recently teaching in Dijon but lives in London but Marc is not also elderly but has a lung condition.  For him, for example, any travel or let alone getting Covid, would be certain death and he was initially conceived as a central project that would have been his biggest exhibition in his second home, France.  And in response to this we literally left the museum more or less empty and showed the nails of the previous Man Ray exhibition and exhibited something that was really crucial to the thinking about Manifesta because in the early 1940s there was a place which was called Villa Air-Bel which was run by an American journalist with funds from Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rescue Committee to harbour European intellectuals essentially and get them often forged papers to emigrate to the US.  So, at a given point you might have had Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst in the same building and that’s very interesting and that speaks to the moment of crisis.  Even in that moment in the moment of greatest uncertainty those artists, those intellectuals engaged in a form of play by making collective drawings and we exhibited those collective drawings.  And this is also where the name ‘Trait d’union’ came from.  Because they folded the papers… you know like… and continued on the other side.  So, and this is also something to, to keep in mind.  Art helps us to imagine a different future, a different reality and it is that bridge through which we connect or sometimes disconnect, but then learn to connect. 

Amanda Gray

You can almost see the whole ICA as the pieces of folded paper as well. 

Stefan Kalmál

Yeah.  Yeah. 

Amanda Gray

Across all the different disciplines that, that it gathers together.  No, it’s an interesting one.  What an amazing story about the building, that’s incredible.  You’ve described I think, previously the ICA as sort of the canary in the mine in terms of testing out new ideas, new forms almost pushing it to a level to seeing what is too toxic.  What, in terms of the ICA’s experiences through the pandemic, can it teach other arts institutions do you think?

Stefan Kalmál

Imagination, I think.  That, that belief you know, like risk taking, you know, like simple things like the ICA Daily and maybe not… if you believe it there might be other people to believe in it too.  I think there’s often the idea that one speaks from the side of the audience, like, making calculation of if audience might like it.  But if you don’t like it, how can you expect audience will like it.  It’s a bit like food, or something you know.  I think being daring, experimental, rigorous, I think these are aspects that are important for our world. 

Amanda Gray

Do you think the pandemic is a chance to build back better or are the financial pressures such that it will discourage the risk-taking, the flexibility that you talked about and will or do you have concerns about donors and funding etcetera that sort of lead the discussions about programming?

Stefan Kalmál

I think there needs to be a new collective responsibility you know, ICA has half a million visitors approximately, a year.  If only 10% would say, ‘You know I gave ICA 20 - £20 a year, a month’ and therefore you get entry in return, everything for free – can participate in – that’s 10 million. 

Amanda Gray

Yes, yes. 

Stefan Kalmál

This is 10 times as much as we get from the Arts Council you know. so, I think there needs to be new models, new experiments…

Amanda Gray

Yes. 

Stefan Kalmál

… of how we do things and how we are not getting caught up in the very same antagonism or reality that on the other, other aspects of our work we have problems with.  But also how we enter into a frank conversation with each other about how we together want to go forward. 

Amanda Gray

So, as a last question, what’s next for the ICA?

Stefan Kalmál

If I’m not wrong, on the 20th of November we launch this different names circulate, let’s call it ‘Channel 3’ or something you know, for now it’s a new platform that will be literally a new channel with its staffing structure and financial resources that essentially brings you wherever you are in the world, the best of the ICA to your desktop or flat screen you know, or your cell phone and then our panel discussion, conversation workshops and film festivals and it will be a continuous channel even once we resume physical operation, whenever that will be and also the launch of the ICA membership that I talked earlier about as a new form of maybe a more civic contribution that everybody can afford to make the ICA work, work for you and then there’s a big marker in the second half of 2021 which, end of October - 30th of October, if I’m not wrong, is ICA’s 75th anniversary. 

Amanda Gray

Which is incredible.  So, there’s a lot, it feels very optimistic for me.  Yeah exciting times.  Thank you so much Stefan. 

Stefan Kalmál

No.  Thank you very much. 

Amanda Gray

A real pleasure.  Looking forward to seeing and learning more about the online platform.  I really urge just once with us today to have a look at the ICO website, investigate further and look out for the developments for October 30th, and the 75th anniversary of the ICA – Institute of Contemporary Arts.  Thanks so much for joining us. 

Stefan Kalmál

Thank you. 

Amanda Gray

Thank you.  Take care.  Bye. 

Stefan Kalmál

Take care.  Bye-bye. 

Amanda Gray

Bye-bye.  Bye. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

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