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Cultural Politics

London Evening Standard, March 11 2005

HE IS the adept cultural pundit regularly called upon to pronounce on high art or racial politics. Now, rather than dissect other people’s output from the comfort of the studio sofa, Ekow Eshun is taking on a troubled artistic project of his own. By David Rowan

Eshun is the surprise choice as the new artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The 58-year-old institute, in its prime location in The Mall, may still be a favourite haunt of London’s trendiest students, but critics are questioning its lack of focus and cultural influence. The post was widely expected to go to an acclaimed Swiss curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, whose terms were rumoured to be excessive for ICA budgets. So is the home-grown style journalist the man to give the ICA a renewed purpose?

His previous work, as a member of its governing council, included telling Ivan Massow that he had to resign as chairman, and then publicly calling Massow a “pillock”. So when he was appointed this week, he knew as well as anyone the pressures he will now face confronting its internal splits, tarnished critical reputation and financial uncertainty.

The ICA badly needs to raise its share of commercial sponsorship if it is to afford the sort of attractions that compete with the big names in exhibitions and events.

“He really didn’t expect to get it,” says a close friend. “The big question was going to be how he’d manage a team of 70 people. It’s a riven organisation, and he’s never run anything on that scale or had to raise that sort of money.”

But Eshun, a consummate performer with an immaculate casual wardrobe, was so persuasive in his interview that the ICA decided to redefine the job for him.

While the previous director Philip Dodd had to juggle both artistic and managerial roles, Eshun will now have a separate managing director to deal with the less artistic duties. A memebr of the interview panel said: “He recognises that the ICA is about reaching the 16- to 30-yearolds who he’s quite in touch with – the people at Goldsmith’s and St Martin’s – and not necessarily the media people.”

He will also need to sort out the muddle of what the ICA stands for in an era when institutions ranging from Tate Modern to the Saatchi Gallery are pushing back artistic boundaries and contemporary art is everywhere – not only in the Palladian niche of The Mall.

Eshun needs to give the Arts Council-funded ICA a selling point and a direction that stands out in London’s crowded cultural market. In 1992, it hosted Damien Hirst’s first major London show; in the Seventies it was associated with the edgy art of the punk era. Now, critics are less impressed. “It’s eclecticism run mad,” says one. “There are random debates, some oddly chosen exhibitions and installations – and a lot of people using it mainly as a cafe. It doesn’t hang together at all.”

ESHUN marks a generational shift from Philip Dodd, the former New Statesman journalist, academic and broadcaster whose manner was that of a rather stately radical.

By contrast, Eshun has Hoxton credentials, living with his girlfriend near Old Street, and takes fashionably outspoken positions against targets ranging from the royal family (he favours “a proper republic”) to the Metropolitan Police campaign against middleclass cocaine use.

So what will he bring to the role? “I’d expect him to take it younger, more mainstream, like a littlebrother version of Tate Modern,” predicts the journalist Richard Benson, who has known Eshun since they both worked on The Face in the early Nineties. “At that time he’d be bringing in stories about the modern artists Gavin Turk and Marc Quinn before anyone had heard of them, and as his editor, I’d tell him that was stupid. But he was proved right – he has that pop sensibility.”

Born in London, he spent part of his childhood in Ghana, where his father, a diplomat, fell foul of the regime and spent time in jail. He was educated at Kingsbury High School in north-west London before studying politics and history at the London School of Economics.

Miranda Sawyer, who has known him since he wrote for Just Seventeen magazine, believes that his ambition stems from his family background. “One moment he was living in splendour, the next it was gone. His dad was very keen on his sons being well educated.”

Eshun recently returned to Ghana to trace his family’s history. What he discovered sickened him. “To my disgust, I discovered that my ancestor of seven generations past had been a slave trader,” he explained – a white man from Holland who had settled in Ghana, and whose mixed-race son had continued the trade. “My ancestors may have been long dead, but I still felt morally culpable for their actions.”

He has written about growing up black in Britain, and about the racism and bullying he has suffered. But he is sensitive to accusations that he has been helped in his media career by the relative paucity of articulate ethnicminority voices. “Any time there’s a race angle, he is called on to talk about it,” a friend explains. “He’s not that comfortable with it, but the one thing Ekow understands is what the media needs. And he’ll take that opportunity.”

His greatest exposure has come through his cultural critiques on Newsnight Review. His self-consciously thoughtful performances have not always been appreciated: to the Daily Mail, he is “achingly pretentious”.

“He can come across as too clever and not passionate, but that’s not the case,” says his fellow pundit Miranda Sawyer. “The trouble is he’s so clever that he tends to articulate his views rather over-intellectually.”

So surprised was he to get the job that Eshun has asked for time to think through his plans. Will he cope when he arrives in May? “He’s a charming guy, so he should be able to get the staff to love him,” says one of his commissioning editors.

Yet if he is to restore the ICA to the heart of London’s cultural life, that charm will need to be accompanied by a clear vision and a core of steel.

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