When poet and literary critic Herbert Read co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1947 with fellow poet and artist Roland Penrose, arts benefactor Peter Watson and writer Geoffrey Grigson, he described it as an ‘experimental workshop’ and ‘an adult play-centre’.
In the 60 years since then, the ICA has stuck to Read’s vision by staying firmly at the cutting edge of culture, courting controversy, the regular wrath of its right-wing local authority and charges of indecency with the likes of Karen Finlay’s yam-centred performance and Franco B’s bloody body rituals in the theatre; Helen Chadwick’s stinking pile of organic matter in the upper gallery and Robert Mapplethorpe’s X-rated fist-fucking photography in the lower; and Warhol’s Flesh and Trash in the cinemas.
It installed a working toilet by Sarah Lucas which was used by several visitors at the private view, opened a ‘new media’ lab when people barely understood the words, saw a near-riot at an Einstezende Neubauten Rock Week night, hosted a digital film festival when no one thought digital would amount to anything, regularly hosted symposiums that questioned everything from war to censorship in cinema and multiculturalism to imperialism, and has played host to some of music’s most influential and important bands in its tiny theatre long before they were ‘discovered’ by the likes of Central St Martins College of Art and Design. As ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun succinctly says, ‘At heart, it’s a culturally promiscuous organisation.’
It’s hard to convey the effects on the organisation of such consistent dedication to cultural curiosity and intellectualism, but spend an hour in its bar and you’re aware that it definitely has some undefinable otherness that similar cultural institutions clearly don’t, and attracts a wider range of visitors than most of them. So, how on earth do you get that across in its branding?
Over 60 years, a number of designers have had a go. Most recently it’s been the turn of Spin, which was charged with replacing Neville Brody’s logo last autumn. Other than a small tweak by Brody in 2004 as part of a ‘brand language overhaul’, the ICA’s logo had been in place since the 1980s, so it’s no wonder that, on taking over in 2005, design fan Eshun was keen – according to Spin creative director Tony Brook – to give the organisation a more ‘impactful’ brand. ‘I wanted to move from the previous marque, which had a gravity bordering on severity, to something that was more dynamic, something that could express more fully things like the ICA’s relationship with Pop Art and music, its spontaneous splash nature,’ explains Eshun. ‘Something that conveyed the notion that visiting the gallery would be, dare I say it, fun,’ adds Brook.
It’s true that the previous logos – not just Brody’s, but the earlier brand marques – were overly intellectual and distancing. Whatever they conveyed, it certainly wasn’t ‘fun’. But, taken together with the thousands of pieces of graphic material produced by the ICA over the years, they do manage to give some sense of its role in shaping contemporary culture. As Brook puts it, ‘It’s interesting to look back on the previous incarnations of the ICA’s identity; they are, unsurprisingly, products of their time and probably set the tone for that time. I could have made a pretty good guess at when they had been designed, which I find quite heartening, as the gallery is all about the here and now. Unlike many of the giant corporate behemoths, it has a mandate to change, to be refreshed. My only criticism is that it has not changed more often over the years.’
Looking at the examples on these pages, drawn from the Tate Archive’s collection of ICA graphics material, it is genuinely surprising how little the logos have changed, but also how little sense you get of the breadth and innovation the brand has always stood for, and how multi-faceted is the organisation they’re meant to represent. They singularly fail to, as Eshun puts it, ‘connect the visual identity with the ICA’s beliefs’. Spin’s logo, based on ‘molecule structures’, redresses this by reflecting the different ‘interpretative elements’ of the ICA, something that in the past was done in the wider graphic ouevre of the institute/ the posters, leaflets, bulletins, publications and tickets all taken together offer a historical tour of British graphic design that has much to offer contemporary designers. In the case of the 22 boxes of ICA graphics the Tate Archive holds, these cultural dinosaurs should be required viewing for all design students.
The Tate Archive is located in the Hyman Kreitman Research Centre at Tate Britain. Readers’ tickets are free and available to all, but advance appointments are required. For more information, call 020 7887 8838