Image: John Watson

Bengi Ünsal: Gen Z are increasingly “genre fluid”

The Institute for Contemporary Arts’s new director is widening its focus beyond just visual art
November 3, 2022

When I meet Bengi Ünsal, the new director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), at a café in Hackney, she’s energised after a busy morning. Tomorrow she’ll be launching her first annual programme since taking the top job, which also happens to coincide with the ICA’s 75th anniversary. “As an audience member, I felt that the ICA had become more about contemporary art, rather than contemporary arts,” she tells me. “It’s a multi-arts space, not a museum or gallery!” Her vision is for the Institute to rediscover its multi-disciplinary roots, a “rebalancing” rather than a completely new direction. Inferno, a queer club collective, will host a take-over in December. A new music series, Astrals, will see established producers curate emerging artists. Numerous workshops and book launches are inked in too. “This programme is a good introduction to what we have in mind,” she says. “It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Ünsal, who is 47 and originally from Turkey, recalls how the scarcity of cultural activities for young people was a fact of life growing up in Istanbul. There was huge excitement when international acts like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Massive Attack eventually did come to town. She began her career doing odd jobs for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) before heading up record labels and then Salon, a performance venue run by the IKSV. She put on the kinds of music performances she wanted to see, like from Midlake and Nils Frahm. “I can’t see arts and culture as an audience member anymore,” Ünsal says. “I have an organiser’s perspective; I’m always alert.”

Having first visited London after winning tickets to see Prince at Wembley Arena in 1995, Ünsal moved to the city permanently in 2016 as head of contemporary music for the Southbank Centre, where she founded Concrete Lates, a late-night showcase of electronic music. To curate her four editions of the Southbank’s Meltdown festival, she chose MIA, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Nile Rodgers and Grace Jones. “Grace thanked me from the stage and gave me a hug; it doesn’t get much better than that,” she says.

Her background in music is a notable shift away from what has been an increasingly visual arts focus at the ICA. But Ünsal doesn’t see this as a problem. Gen Z are increasingly “genre fluid” in their creativity, she says, from sculptors making artist films to crossovers in fashion design. The ambition is to accommodate everyone, but especially those who have been at the margins of the cultural establishment. “We already have a young, diverse audience,” Ünsal says. “We want them to feel completely comfortable coming into the ICA.”

Grace Jones thanked me from the stage and gave me a hug; it doesn’t get much better than that

But her role as director will be more than just a creative one. Twelve years since the ICA was bailed out by the Arts Council and restructured, its financial health is still an existential priority. (It received £789,000 from the government’s coronavirus Culture Recovery Fund.) “It’s not an easy institution to run,” Ünsal says. “There is a responsibility and pressure on my shoulders.”

We finish up, but the day after I’m seeing Ünsal again, this time to attend the launch of the ICA’s new programme. Artists, creators and ICA patrons are gathered in the building’s upstairs rooms, where the floor-to-ceiling windows overlook an autumnal St James’s Park. Ünsal runs through some of the exhibitions, theatre and films coming up, while also harking back to a few folkloric ICA moments, including The Clash’s concert there in 1976. She is most animated when announcing the new after-hours and dance music programming, where the ICA building will act as a nightclub: “I love parties!” she says excitedly. Beside her stands a television displaying quotes from the likes of Steve McQueen and Tilda Swinton reflecting on what the Institute means to them. “The ICA is the start of my beginning,” McQueen says. With Ünsal now at the helm, many up-and-coming artists will be hoping it’ll be their beginning, too.