Ekow Eshun is rightly described as a high achiever. A former assistant editor of style bible The Face and editor of men’s magazine Arena (both before his 29th birthday), he regularly appears as a cultural commentator on Newsnight Review as well as writing for The Guardian and The Observer.
He has penned a highly readable memoir, Black Gold of the Sun, in which he made the startling discovery that he is descended from a slave trader. For nearly three years he has been artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London, guiding the institution through a spectacular 60th year in 2007. And he doesn’t turn 40 until May.
As befits someone so patently ambitious, Eshun is clear about his strengths. ‘I’m very good at communicating and I’ve tried to ensure that the ICA is too,’ he says. ‘We are much, much clearer about who we are and what we do. We always do things that are culturally relevant, urgent and of now.’
That mission has been unchanged since 1947, when the ICA was created as an agenda-setting space in which to celebrate contemporary art and culture. But not surprisingly – given that the Arts Council now provides only a quarter of the ICA’s budget – Eshun believes there is also scope for more tie-ins between the arts and brands.
‘Finance and culture are the two tent poles for contemporary London,’ he says grandly. ‘Deutsche Bank, UBS and Bloomberg aside, there are not that many brands involved in a relationship with the visual arts, but it is clear to me that people love being engaged. The ICA is one of the places that has a dynamic relationship with its audience.’
But perhaps the problem is that companies are simply not looking at the ICA. To see the millions of visitors on the other side of the Thames streaming into Tate Modern is to wonder whether the Bankside gallery’s media-grabbing exhibitions have rather stolen the ICA’s artistic thunder.
Eshun shakes his head. ‘The success of Tate Modern has created more room but we do something different. We are not looking to do mid-career retrospectives, but to agenda-set, working with emerging artists in art and film.’
Eshun is big on the ICA having a ‘conversation’ with its audience about art and culture’s relationship to the wider world, and corporate donors are expected to be similarly engaged.
It is a fine line to walk. When art meets business there is always the nasty whiff of ‘sell out’ in the air. But Eshun argues that companies need to look carefully at what they want from ICA tie-ups. ‘It does not have to be: “We want a piece of the art world”,’ he explains. ‘It is more that brands have products and services and see an audience that is literate, sophisticated and interested in new ideas at the ICA.’
Without any sign of prickliness he adds: ‘It is legitimate to seek support and relationships in this way. Stuff costs money and that is the way of the world.’
His practical attitude comes as no surprise to Richard Benson, former editor of The Face. ‘On the subject of art and business, he is good at seeing the world from both angles,’ Benson points out.
‘The only way sponsorship works is if there is respect and mutual understanding,’ continues Eshun. ‘Everything has to be aligned. We are not looking for someone to (just) put their logos on an event. Life is too short.’
Eshun’s ability to find the right balance produces groundbreaking events like last year’s month-long programme of rock gigs sponsored by iTunes. The Chemical Brothers’ ICA event in Trafalgar Square late in ’07 was triumphant despite being paid for by Beck’s beer, and last summer’s All Tomorrow’s Pictures exhibition, made up of pictures taken by 60 movers and shakers on Sony Ericsson camera phones, was feted for being an artistic event rather than a commercial one. ‘It has to be a project with genuine integrity in its own right,’ says Eshun, who reckons three-quarters of his sponsorship meetings come to nothing.
Some commentators expressed surprise at Eshun’s ICA appointment in 2005 – ‘it is one of my petty annoyances’, he grimaces politely. One writer warned he would have to deal with the ICA’s ‘internal splits, tarnished critical reputation and financial uncertainty’. Eshun does not refute this. ‘The ICA needed work when I arrived,’ he says easily.
Eshun’s friend and fellow writer/presenter Miranda Sawyer thinks he found the job ‘quite overwhelming’ at first, but he is now nearly three years into a process of change that will take ‘three to five years’ and says he has worked hard on internal comms as well as investing significant money in the ICA’s website and new visual identity.
One suspects the detractors of three years ago neglected to look at his CV. For a start, he had already been on the ICA’s board for several years. Also, editing magazines involves filling, say, 150 pages. In a sort of 3-D version of that, Eshun now programmes exhibitions, films, talks and gigs across the ICA’s spaces.
Added to this, his ability to spot cultural trends and the links between things rising to popularity – in other words, the qualities that made him a good style journalist – chime perfectly with the ICA’s raison d’etre.
Sawyer says Eshun’s cultural knowledge is deep and expansive enough to allow him to reference Dostoyevsky and a new pop band in the same conversation. ‘He is of a generation where pop culture has equal weight to any other culture,’ she explains.
In interview, Eshun is a controlled, earnest presence although Benson and Sawyer insist he is both funny and emotional when you get to know him. If that is the case his office suits his personality: an unreadable, white-walled room – yet blessed with one of London’s most breathtaking views across the Mall, Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall, with rooftops dominated by the distant big wheel of the London Eye. There are no pictures on the walls: he does not need them.
One assumes his charm has carried most of his staff with him, although one current employee PRWeek spoke to was relentlessly sniffy about the changes. However, Eshun’s figures seem to back his approach: for 2006-07, ICA visitor numbers were up 27 per cent to half a million; turnover has risen 40 per cent in two years; and a decline in membership numbers has been reversed.
As to how long the ICA will keep him interested, Eshun isn’t sure. ‘I’m having a fantastic time and sometimes think I might be here forever,’ he says happily. ‘On the other hand, I might go and write another book.’
As it enters its 61st year, one gets the feeling the grand old ICA should do all it can to hold on to the culturally astute media maverick at its helm.
2005: Becomes artistic director of ICA and publishes Black Gold of the Sun
2003: Travels to Ghana to research first book
2001: Editor, Hot Air
1998: Begins contributing to Late Review
1996: Editor, Arena
1995: Assistant editor, The Face
1991: Acting features editor, Just Seventeen
1989: Contributor, Elle
1988: Contributor, The Face
1987: Reporter, Kiss FM.