This article was published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Square Meal Venues & Events magazine
As London music fans flock to the ICA for the month-long iTunes festival featuring Amy
Winehouse and Paul McCartney, Square Meal finds that the venue is still as edgy as it was sixty years ago.
Day in, day out, clusters of camera-toting tourists crowd the broad, tree-lined sweep of road running from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace. With its imposing white facades and parade of
flagpoles, The Mall is a suitably distinguished backdrop for the pomp and ceremony of royal events. So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this isn’t the most obvious setting for an organisation
at the vanguard of the contemporary arts scene. After all, grassroots artists are more often aired in little-known venues of edgier fringes like Hoxton and Camden. However, it is precisely this
combination of freshness and gravity that make the Institute of Contemporary Arts such a unique venue.
Designed by celebrated Georgian architect John Nash, the early 19th-century building that houses the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) blends seamlessly with its grandiose surroundings, but that’s where the similarity ends. Step inside and you’re greeted by the
uncompromising modernity of its stark, whitewashed walls and 1960s-inspired furniture – a fitting backdrop for the groundbreaking exhibitions that have made the ICA famous.
The impact the ICA has had on the London arts scene in the past 60 years cannot be underestimated. Without its support, pop art may never have entered mainstream culture, and you may not have heard
the names David Hockney or Damien Hirst (both held their first exhibitions here). This summer, the venue pushed boundaries once again, when it was chosen to host a month of live gigs for the iTunes
Festival: 31 nights, 31 artists.
Deciding on the ICA can’t have been a difficult choice for the team at iTunes. With its commitment to innovation, design and technology, Apple’s core brand values are very much alive in the
philosophies of the ICA, and vitally, the venue also offers a prime central London location for festival-goers. Surprisingly, it was the ICA team that was initially hesitant about the domination of
a music festival in a space that usually hosts a wide variety of events. Any anxieties were allayed instantly, however, by the staggering bill of artists. ‘Once we saw the line-up we knew we
couldn’t turn it down,’ says Jamie Eastman, music programmer for the venue.
Each night, some 350 winners of the iTunes ticket lottery flooded in to the small theatre space for an opportunity to witness intimate performances by stadium-fillers such as Paul McCartney, Amy
Winehouse and Kasabian as well as less mainstream indie, jazz and classical performers. Eastman explains that iTunes was quite a departure for the ICA, which is renowned more for championing
‘Emerging acts are our bread and butter,’ he says. ‘iTunes was quite different in that respect – there were a lot of established acts here – but it was also great to see acts I’d never heard of –
the composer Ludovico Einaudi and The Bad Plus too, so they attracted different audiences.’ Indeed, although performers like Groove Armada and Travis are more accustomed to packing out London’s
largest concert venues than a small 350-capacity room, the ICA’s theatre presents challenges of its own.
‘The room was built to be a working theatre space so it’s quite a hard room to play,’ explains Eastman. ‘It’s got a huge stage, and high ceilings, so you need charisma to fill it. If there’s a good
atmosphere in there you know you’re in for something special.’ The appeal of this very ordinary-looking theatre space is only evident when it’s full. As animated gig-goers streamed in to the room
on the night of an iTunes gig by ‘next big thing’ Jack Peñate, it was hard to pinpoint the precise point at which it burst in to life. ‘It makes a real change from the usual gig venues,’ says James
Marcus, 27, from Ealing. ‘I was blown away when I saw who was playing. It’s amazing to see these kind of bands in such a small place.’
Judging by the noise levels, the crowd of fashionably dressed twenty-somethings was just as excited to be witnessing such a uniquely intimate performance. Perhaps part of the venue’s inexplicable
magic is down to the affection the bands themselves hold for the ICA, which is renowned for its support of fledgling performers (the Scissor Sisters, Franz Ferdinand and Gogol Bordello all played
their London debuts here). ‘A lot of artists have played the venue on their way up,’ explains Eastman. ‘Paul McCartney, for example, was really happy to be back. He told me he used to rehearse here
with Wings and that whenever he’s nearby, he thinks about “how good you were to us”. I think that was one of the reasons he decided to play.’
With endorsements like this, the ICA’s cachet as a music venue is not in question, but does this edginess appeal to the corporate market? Eastman explains that it’s important for apparently
hard-nosed businesses to associate themselves with culture and the arts. ‘They want to make sure they’re seen as softer, more finger-on-the-pulse corporations,’ he says. ‘We’re an institute that
exists to develop and showcase the arts, so they also know that what’s happening elsewhere in the building is fairly buzzy, and they can soak it up.’
The ICA’s creative team is very aware that the popularity of the venue for events depends on its position at the sharp end of art and culture. ‘If we stop making it exciting, they’ll stop coming,’
Eastman admits. ‘It’s important that we are continually evolving and changing, and finding the next thing.’ Fortnightly brainstorming meetings between the cinema, music, talks, live arts and
exhibition teams play a significant role in maintaining this freshness.
The marriage of this progressive approach with the clout of a serious institution is clearly evident in the diversity of the events spaces available throughout the building. While the theatre used
for the iTunes festival works well as a gig space, the high-ceilinged Regency splendour of the airy Nash and Brandon rooms at the back of the building lends itself more to elegant cocktail
receptions and parties. Here, the wooden floors and original John Nash plasterwork provide a contrasting historical backdrop for modern conveniences such as full lighting rigs and hanging systems
Connected by an anteroom, the two main event spaces are always hired together. The Nash Room is slightly bigger (it holds 90 standing or 75 seated) and has three balconies overlooking the Mall
towards Admiralty Arch, Big Ben and the BA London Eye. The Brandon Room looks out onto leafy Waterloo Place.
Used together, they can hold 150 for a drinks reception, dinner-dance or cocktail party with a DJ, at a cost of £2,500 excluding VAT in the daytime or £3,000 in the evening, when they can be lit in
a spectrum of coloured lighting. Since acquiring a wedding licence in December, these rooms have been particularly popular with culturally conscious couples looking for an edgy but elegant venue.
ICA events assistant Kate Crutchley says: ‘It really sticks in people’s memory. People are always taken to new and different venues, but this place is quite distinctive. They comment on the rooms
themselves and on how the lighting highlights the architecture.’
As a working performance space, in-house production is one of the ICA’s strengths, boosting the potential of its otherwise plain backdrops. The rather industrial-looking theatre, for example,
requires elaborate dressing for smarter corporate events. ‘It’s basically a black industrial box, so it needs a lot of production,’ explains Crutchley. ‘But all the private events here get the
benefit of our technicians, who are used to doing all that.’ Crutchley sees the split-level café-bar at the front of the building as ‘the hub of the ICA’ because it connects all the other rooms.
It is particularly popular for breakfast meetings – the institute does not open to the public until noon, so organisers get the whole venue to themselves at this time. The ICA’s caterer, Caper
Green, provides food for corporate clients, which can be anything from a breakfast of melon and mint kebabs to a five-course meal starting with chicken consommé and Sevruga caviar. Its focus is on
organic and healthy cuisine.
As well as a wine list, Caper Green offers a selection of freshly blended fruit juices and smoothies, alongside fairtrade tea and coffee.
Nick Scott, a consultant at law firm DLA Piper, attended a drinks reception in the café-bar last year and recalls the cutting-edge feel of the venue’s minimalist interiors. ‘The white walls gave it
an institutional feel,’ he says. ‘We drank Guinness, sat in designer chairs and mingled with the guests, who were a vibrant mix from across the generations.’ It’s also worth noting that, on the
rare occasions when exhibitions are not running, the galleries themselves can be hired.
Slightly smaller than the Nash and Brandon Rooms, the Upper Gallery has solid grey and white walls and is accessible from the ICA’s private entrance on Carlton House Terrace, which has its own
reception. Meanwhile, the Lower Gallery, located by the main entrance, is a stark space that can hold up to 200 people for a drinks reception between exhibitions. Its white walls and grey stone
floors provide a versatile canvas either for dressing up in brand colours or for lending an event a minimalist coolness.
As for the institute’s cinemas, Cinema 1 seats 185 and costs around £1,000 for a full day’s hire, while Cinema 2 holds 45 and costs up to £800.
The larger cinema has a stage at the front, making it suitable for presentations, while PowerPoint slides can be projected on to the adjustable cinema screen, so that even those at the back get a
good view. The smaller room has the same red seats and walls but is mostly used for private screenings. The hire fee for both cinemas includes a dedicated projectionist. With such a range of event
spaces, dedicated technicians and a dynamic, lively atmosphere, it’s easy to forget that the ICA is also just a two-minute hop from Trafalgar Square – about as central as you can get. So tube
stations, Waterloo mainline, taxis and parking (in Waterloo Place, Whitcombe Street and Spring Gardens) are all on the doorstep, as is St James’s Park. That’s a real clincher for clients, says
‘One of the main things the venue has going for it is the fantastic location,’ she explains. ‘You can look out of the window and it’s calming, but you know you’re in London. If you have events in a
hotel, you could be anywhere, but here you’re surrounded by a little bit of history.’
As the ICA celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year, the pioneering, and just slightly rebellious spirit of its early days is very much alive and kicking.