Iniva: Fit For Purpose?

This essay on the state of the Institute of International Visual Arts was published in Art Monthly issue 380, 2014


In July of this year the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) sent a group email to associates with what was received by many as sad and shocking news. ‘Colleagues and partners,’ it opened, ‘we wanted to be in touch to let you know Iniva’s position following last week’s announcement by Arts Council England.’ Defeatist, flat and oddly conciliatory in tone, the message was that, following a 43.3% slash off Iniva’s National Portfolio Organisation grant in 2012/13, ACE had decided on a further 62.3% cut this time around, effectively reducing Iniva’s 2015/18 allocation from £1,762,486 to £685,032 – that is, £228,344 a year. Consequently, Iniva will cede management of Rivington Place (the organisation’s £7.66m purpose-built premises completed in 2007 thanks to a £5.97m contribution of ACE capital funds) to the building’s other NPO occupants – and recent recipients of a 96% grant hike – Autograph ABP (the Association of Black Photographers). Furthermore, Iniva will have to vacate the building by April 2015 and has been advised to return to its former status as an itinerant agency.

How did this happen? Looking beyond individual accountabilities, it is clear that Iniva’s current fate is as a result of institutional forces outside of its control, forces that continually push susceptible organisations in the art world towards homogeneity in structure, culture and output. For anyone who has taken more than a passing interest in Iniva’s activity of late, these recent additional cuts could be seen coming from a long way off. Plainly speaking, once the initial bombast and controversy surrounding Rivington Place’s construction died down, regard for Iniva has been allowed to slide from recognition of its initial iconoclasm and brilliance to an informal consensus about its current inconsequence and irrelevance. The problem was that established London-based institutions (Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, South London Gallery, Camden Arts Centre etc) introduced a tentative internationalist stance into their own programmes. This had three detrimental effects: first, it absorbed Iniva’s operational territory and remit, which pushed the organisation towards redundancy, given that the reversal of institutional colour and occidental bias in the UK was its core goal. Second, it reduced and repackaged Iniva’s initially radical agenda as the hollow rhetoric of the global. Third, it exposed the fact that Iniva’s programme has, since the mid 2000s, existed in a state of arrested development, a position of stasis made all the more apparent by the accelerated rate of social, economic and cultural change during the period – most notably the partial dissolution of cultural hierarchies facilitated by the world wide web, and the emergence of strong grass roots arts activities and young independent organisations operating, for however brief a period, outside the mainstream.

Who is at fault for Iniva’s deterioration? In a move not entirely unjustified, eyes are turning to senior management. Disgruntled observers feel that Iniva has been steered on a course of ever-decreasing activity by a somnambulant directorship from Tessa Jackson OBE. In all fairness, it is an accusation supported by events during Jackson’s tenure. Since 2008 Iniva – watched over with Olympian detachment from the organisation’s hesitant board and a succession of ineffectual chairs post-Stuart Hall’s resignation – has seen high staff turnover and the dissolution of its outstanding and well-respected publishing arm; the suppression of certain key education initiatives and a reduction in significant public events; the development of an exhibition programme that is, broadly speaking, uninspiring; and a separation from its original partner organization, Autograph ABP.

But the crucial point to recognise is that Iniva’s current condition is ultimately the product of historical forces that transcend personal failings. The organisation has run into difficulties because it adopted and continues to follow an old and unfit-for-purpose institutional model, a prefab bureaucratic framework standardised through decades of professionalisation in the field. In the process, what Iniva has been pushed towards is a condition of institutional mimicry, the goal being to reach a standardised state of operations akin to what is maintained by Margot Heller at the South London Gallery, Iwona Blazwick at Whitechapel, Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain and Ralph Rugoff at the Hayward. These mid-to top-level capital city organisations, showing primarily mid-career to blue-chip contemporary artists, have been able to function in a standardised mode because their remits, exhibitions and public programmes are essentially interchangeable. They exist to support and not challenge the status quo, and they observe the same western art historical orthodoxy and attendant academic system that is still singularly and anachronistically capable of conferring curatorial, artistic and theoretical legitimacy.

Iniva, on the other hand, was created to continuously introduce difference into a homogeneous field; it has to be new. The idea of internationalism was revived when it was set up in 1994 but in the first decade of the 21st century that lobby metamorphosed into the more abstract objective of attaining diversity. According to Iniva’s 2013 report, the idea is to question ‘existing positions and hierarchies within visual culture […] so that a greater range of voices can contribute and be heard’, to engage ‘with new ideas and emerging debates […] reflecting in particular the cultural diversity of contemporary society’; none of which has been convincingly borne out in its programme. The reality is that Iniva has been prevented from becoming the type of organisation that could achieve those crucial and necessary goals because such goals call for a radical new way of operating as an institution. Instead, external pressures – pressures that were perhaps unconsciously felt by Jackson, the board and ACE – have shaped Iniva’s staff structures, pay grades, rhetoric and practices in the image of those institutions it was created to be distinct from.

This dynamic belongs to the world of inter-institutional influence, and significant research into this phenomenon has been carried out via the branch of organisational theory – that is, the study of formal organisations – known as sociological institutionalism. According to US sociologists Rosemary CR Taylor and Peter A Hall’s influential 1996 paper ‘Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms’, sociological institutionalism is the school of thought that stipulates institutions – that is, societal norms and rule-governed formal organisations – not only ‘influence behaviour by specifying what one should do, but also by specifying what one can imagine oneself doing in a given context’. It is the theory that organisations are subject to forces of contextual and cultural influence that define and demarcate how they can and should operate, and it emerged at the end of the 1970s.

Taking their cue from the more dystopic prognostications in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – specifically his belief that the spread of bureaucracy would ultimately create an ‘iron cage’ of rationalist order in which mankind was imprisoned – sociological institutionalists maintained that standardisation took place because institutions adopted the same practices as other organisations in their given field, frequently to their detriment, in order to be recognised as genuine. Hall and Taylor explain that ‘organisations embrace specific institutional forms or practices because the latter are valued within a broader cultural environment’. This is because of a tacit inter-institutional understanding that, according to US sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan writing in the 1977 text Institutionalised Organisations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony, ‘organisations which innovate in important structural ways bear considerable costs in legitimacy’, they frequently ‘fail when they deviate from the prescriptions of institutionalised myths’. In their cogent 1983 essay The Iron Cage Revisited, US sociologists Paul J DiMaggio and Walter W Powell labelled this process of influence and homogenisation, where organisations come to resemble each other regardless of their specific remits, as institutional isomorphism. The duo explain: ‘Isomorphism is a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions.’ They also identify three types of isomorphic pressures: coercive isomorphism, that is conformity through force, persuasion or collusion; normative isomorphism, resulting from an organisation’s entry into a standardised professional field; and mimetic isomorphism, where ‘uncertainty is a powerful force that encourages imitation’ and organisations with ambiguous goals model themselves on other institutions.

How do we know institutional isomorphism was the cause of Iniva’s ills? That it continued to operate contrary to its best interests after the initial budget cut in 2012 is evidence enough. Looking deeper, its status as the new institution on the block in 2007 – as AM reported at the time, Rivington Place was ‘the first new-build public gallery in London since the opening of the Hayward in 1968’ – also created the optimum conditions for the syndrome to take hold. DiMaggio and Powell maintain that uncertainty and goal ambiguity, especially in relation to an organisation’s fiscal and procedural matters, engenders the isomorphic impulse. In relation to money, the duo explain that ‘government recognition of key firms or organisations through the grant or contract process may give these organisations legitimacy and visibility and lead competing firms to copy aspects of their structure or operating procedures in hope of obtaining similar results’. And in relation to procedure, they write that ‘the more uncertain the relationship between means and ends the greater the extent to which an organisation will model itself after organisations it perceives to be successful’. In the first case, Iniva’s reliance on ACE as the primary grant giver meant that its organisational structure was under pressure to mimic those of other mid- to top-level London-based organisations whose regular ACE funding was secured. In the second, given Iniva’s unprecedented and ambiguous goals, tentative and risk-averse senior management which was under pressure to deliver again used pre-existing programme models. Finally, if that didn’t ensure mimesis, Iniva’s reliance on other museums, galleries and collectors for the loan of artworks would have put pressure on Iniva to adopt their institutional procedures in order to be recognised as a legitimate venue for exhibitions of contemporary art. To paraphrase Weber, the art world was an immense cosmos of institutional rules of action that presented itself as an unalterable order of things into which Iniva was born, became involved and conformed.

Established institutions are able to exert this powerful influence through unvoiced, subliminal and tacit pressures simply by existing and operating as they do because we are influenced, by their hierarchical power structures and austere ambience of tightly policed behaviours, to believe they function according to some transcendent institutional rationality. They don’t. While it is incontrovertible that some procedures exist because of their tried and tested efficiency, it is also clear that others are adopted because they are the done things, because everyone else in the field is doing them too. In amongst all of this, it is important to remember that contemporary art galleries are all relatively young institutions. They are, in effect, built from and maintained by a number of recent professionalisms that have themselves been subject to isomorphic processes in their early formation. These professionalisms – that is, curating, and both the practice and criticism of contemporary art – are now, in their own ways and at varying degrees of severity, facing crises or at least tensions between what they are officially supposed to be and what they may become in the 21st century that have been brought about by standardisation.

DiMaggio and Powell identify two characteristics of professionalisation as important sources of isomorphic homogeneity: ‘the resting of formal education and of legitimation in a cognitive base produced by university specialists’ – which in the case of curating, criticism and art making also forces subjects that arguably cannot be taught into restrictive frameworks so that outcomes are predictable and progress towards proffesionalisation can be monitored and assessed – and ‘the growth and elaboration of professional networks that span organisations’. Since 1987, the year Paul O’Neil has noted that ‘Le Magasin in Grenoble, France launched the first curatorial training programme in Europe’ and the ‘Art History/Museum Studies element of the Whitney Independent Study Programme was renamed Curatorial and Critical Studies’, the proliferation of courses purporting to teach curating has increased dramatically. Where curating contemporary art was once an occupation one fell into as a matter of practical necessity, it is now an exclusive and conservative field with strict rules of entry, codes of conduct, restrictive conventions of dress, address and communication. As such, there are procedures and norms that must be observed in order to gain the necessary accreditation, and there is an orthodoxy that must be swallowed and then regurgitated if your exhibitions and temporary projects are to be accepted as legitimate contributions to the field. Art criticism, with the proliferation of art writing courses, is also suffering the same fate of standardisation and academicisation. And the making of contemporary art has been locked in combat with professionalisation since at least the mid-20th century, with the recent trend in practice-based PhDs (‘Rebel Without a Course’ AM345) – both in artists seeking them and their being needlessly required by universities for teaching posts – seeing the balance tip further towards standardisation, or what some refer to as the practice and propagation of institutional art. Organisations that specialise in showing well-established mid-career and top-level artists are ill equipped to push curating, art making, criticism and historical study beyond this state into untested and innovative territories. This is because they rely on and present the results of standardisation and are by nature and design unable to spot, foster or support change from the bottom up. Iniva, on the other hand, was built to work against and challenge hierarchies and homogeneity, to drive and not follow discourse. In order to do so it has to shrug off its dependence on detrimental forms of ‘best practice’. This can be achieved in a number of ways.

Perhaps the single most crucial alteration the organisation must make is in modifying the approach to its central goal of presenting international art: it must shift from a geographical to a subcultural perspective. The geographical perspective in relation to curating international contemporary art essentially follows the biennale model, with curators dropping into locations to find out who the most visible, successful and often enculturated artists are and then bringing them back to the UK for display. Curating international contemporary art from a subcultural perspective must look deeper into the cultural context of a specific location, to go beyond the surface in order to engage with emerging artists and collectives who may not already have large national reputations, and to engage with forms, practices, tendencies and philosophies that might be at odds with what is in vogue or institutionally sanctioned on these shores. In order to take this approach, a rotating team of curators would need to be able to embed themselves in specific communities for a period in order to develop relationships and a significant body of local knowledge. This necessitates dismantling the hierarchical, pyramid staff structure that Iniva has adopted from other institutions, starting with replacing the current board.

Following such change, the single position of director could be dissolved and replaced with three permanent curators. A glaring example of institutional isomorphism at Iniva is the fact that its current director receives £70-80,000 per year for a four-day week, in which eight staff are overseen. This sum is the institutional standard and salary baseline for directors at the Whitechapel Gallery, South London Gallery and the ICA (although it is grossly inflated at the Serpentine for Julia Peyton Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist – Artnotes AM373) but these spaces have staff teams at least triple Iniva’s size and yearly budgets that are significantly larger to boot. With a budget of £228,344 each year for the next three years, the organisation cannot afford to spend a third of its yearly reserve on a single individual bringing a limited offer to the table – whoever the director may be. By dividing the directorial salary into three equal parts, Iniva would be able to employ three curators at an average of £25-27,000 per year (two focused on exhibitions and one on public programmes). Of course it is not enough to attract ‘star curators’, but the UK is bursting with young curatorial talents who are more knowledgeable about emerging fields and platforms than the out-of-touch directors and senior curators they are often paid a pittance to advise, assist and prop up.

In addition to maintaining the position of education curator, another full-time curator of public programmes would need to be appointed (bringing the quota up from zero to two), which could be achieved by allowing that position to replace the current role of chief exhibition curator. Perhaps more crucial than its exhibitions and education initiatives, Iniva’s management of public programmes will be its most effective tool in engaging the diverse communities that surround the gallery and ensuring its continued public relevance in the capital. All five curators would be responsible for the overall identity of the institution as opposed to the programme being the concrete expression of the will and ideas of a single, highly paid individual.

The last recommendation there is room to sketch out here is that Iniva resist reverting to its former status as an itinerant agency. It should instead seek out a smaller space in the location that was originally rejected as the site of its capital build: Peckham in South London. In contrast to the dead-aired commercialism of Shoreditch, Peckham is an incontrovertibly multicultural area, sorely in need of an arts organisation with a strong, internationally focused curatorial team. So far – and this is not a value judgement, just a statement of fact – various independent curatorial collectives, alternative club nights and private galleries have sprung up in the area and catered for an audience of predominantly, but not exclusively, white British middle-class students, graduates and young professionals who make up the area’s transient population of renters. However, Peckham’s heterogeneous population comprises Polish, South American, West and North African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and white and black British working-class and middle-class resident communities. To suggest small projects and galleries cater their programmes to address these various communities would be a ludicrous and counter-productive move, nor should they be demonised for catering to a specific racial and culturally homogeneous demographic if that is who their programmes largely attract. Iniva, however, has internationalism and civic responsibility as its core values. Currently restaurants, bars, bakeries and property prices that exclude Peckham’s diverse population – and will ultimately force out students and graduates – are driving gentrification in the area. Through its public programme Iniva could be the established organisation that lobbies for and shifts the tenor of development away from gentrification to a culturally driven regeneration that preserves Peckham’s international character and homogeneous population.

In sum, I have used the concept of institutional isomorphism to draw out overarching structural and operational faults that have emerged in Iniva’s attempt to establish itself, through mimesis, as equal to mid- and top-level public arts institutions in London. It is my contention that institutional isomorphism may, in the words of DiMaggio and Powell, ‘help explain the observations that organisations are becoming more homogeneous […] while at the same time enabling us to understand the irrationality, the frustration of power, and the lack of innovation that are so commonplace in organisational life’. It will be a challenge, but if the reversal of fortunes at the ICA is anything to go by – a turnaround driven, in my opinion, by public events, screenings and talks programmed by the institution’s younger staff – Iniva is perfectly capable of resurrecting itself. What’s more, in contrast to the ICA’s predominantly Euro-US remit, the restructuring of Iniva could provide a working example of a new type of institution for the 21st century: a non-hierarchical institution that really engages and unifies diverse publics through rigorously curated international exhibitions and events informed, for the first time, by a deeply embedded, subcultural perspective.

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