As a hard-living art writer in the 1990s, Gregor Muir sometimes crashed out above a shop in East London where artists Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas sold crude beer-can sculptures for a few pounds each.
Today, Muir has a balconied office on the Mall, the tree-lined drag leading to Buckingham Palace. Since February, he heads the Institute of Contemporary Arts -- a center so mismanaged previously that it got a 1.2 million pound ($1.9 million) tax-funded rescue in 2009 and, from next year, will see its annual subsidy shrink 36.8 percent to 900,000 pounds.
Muir drew attention in 2009 with a vivid book on Emin’s generation of Young British Artists (“Lucky Kunst”). A contemporary-art curator at state-funded Tate from 2001 to 2003, he moved to the commercial Hauser & Wirth gallery in 2004, and is a rare public-private hybrid in the museum world.
“I want to reinforce the idea that the ICA is a center for provocation, that it’s the home of the British avant-garde,” Muir, 46, says in an interview at his office. He defines the ICA’s mission as showing “the really young, cutting-edge works.”
At the same time, grant cuts mean the ICA must “secure the best deals it possibly can with the public purse in mind,” he says. If a dealer can cover the cost of shipping works or help fund a catalog, “we will ask them to do so.”
Not for Sale
The ICA just had a solo show of New York-based Jacob Kassay, 27, whose prices rocketed at a Phillips de Pury auction in May. His “Untitled” (2009) canvas sold for $290,500, versus a $60,000 to $80,000 estimate.
Asked whether market success dictated the choice of Kassay, Muir says, “It was purely curatorial: We wanted to show this artist and were really excited to be working with him.” Were the canvases sold while on exhibit? “The works were not for sale.”
Muir cuts a sober figure these days. His navy suits give him the look of a middle-aged banker, and he speaks measuredly.
The ICA was founded in 1947 as a multidisciplinary center by a group of intellectuals, artists and collectors. Damien Hirst had his first solo museum show there. Author Salman Rushdie spoke there the night before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa against him. The 1979 “Prostitution” show, where the artist Cosey Fanny Tutti posed as a porn model, was deemed indecent, and closed after four days.
With the birth of Tate Modern in 2000, the spotlight shifted. Led until last year by Chairman Alan Yentob (the BBC broadcaster) and artistic director Ekow Eshun, the center almost had to shut down as debts soared and sponsors fell prey to the recession. A 2009 tax-funded bailout by Arts Council England came with strings attached: the center had to turn itself around.
“Gregor Muir was a strong appointment for the ICA,” says Moira Sinclair, ACE’s director for London, in an e-mailed reply to questions. “His wealth of experience as a curator and director, and his passion and knowledge of contemporary art, make him a valuable asset.”
Muir, an ex-art student and painter, says he thinks of making a painting every day. Yet he swapped his brushes early on for a word processor, and wrote for Frieze magazine, whose founders now run the Frieze Art Fair. After years of curating, his 2004 move into art dealing shocked many.
“You didn’t exactly have rocks thrown at you, but there was always the constant reminder that you were now working for the dark side, and had in some ways sold your soul,” he says.
Had he? “Not in the least,” says Muir, who calls the gallery a “curatorial paradise” that let him take over a massive East London industrial shed and stage shows by Martin Kippenberger and Martin Creed.
Muir’s aim is to make the ICA a launchpad for up-and-comers. “British art isn’t as big, sexy and out there as it’s been in its recent past,” says Muir. Artists “have come out from under the shadow of YBA, and they have to define themselves.”
The institute may be getting some oomph back. The evening opening this week of an annual young-art show drew 2,000 people, including the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, Muir says.
Tomorrow, Peter Blake and Emin will be among artists giving talks and donating works for sale in a daylong ICA fundraiser. Its title? “Intercourse.”
The ICA’s current show, “Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2011: In the Presence” (through Jan. 15, 2012) is sponsored by Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News.