The ICA was founded by Roland Penrose, Peter Watson, Herbert Read, Peter Gregory, Geoffrey Grigson and E. L. T. Mesens in 1947. The ICA's founders intended to establish a space where artists, writers and scientists could debate ideas outside the traditional confines of the Royal Academy. The first two exhibitions, "40 Years of Modern Art" and "40,000 Years of Modern Art" were organised by Penrose, and reflected his interests in Cubism and African art, taking place in the basement of the Academy Cinema, 165 Oxford Street. The Academy Cinema building included the Pavilion, a restaurant, and the Marquee ballroom in the basement; the building was managed by George Hoellering, the film, jazz and big band promoter.
With the acquisition of 17 Dover Street, Piccadilly, in May 1950, the ICA was able to expand considerably. Ewan Phillips served as the first director. It was the former residence of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. The gallery, clubroom and offices were refurbished by modernist architect Jane Drew assisted by Neil Morris and Eduardo Paolozzi. Paolozzi decorated the bar area and designed a metal and concrete table with student Terence Conran.
Ewan Phillips left in 1951, and Dorothy Morland was asked to take over temporarily, but stayed there as director for eighteen years, until the move to the more spacious Nash House. The critic Reyner Banham acted as assistant Director during the early 1950s, followed by Lawrence Alloway during the mid to later 1950s. In its early years, the Institute organised exhibitions of modern art including Picasso and Jackson Pollock. A Georges Braque exhibition was held at the ICA in 1954. It also launched Pop art, Op art, and British Brutalist art and architecture. The Independent Group met at the ICA in 1952–1962/63 and organised several exhibitions, including This Is Tomorrow.
With the support of the Arts Council, the ICA moved to its current site at Nash House in 1968. For a period during the 1970s the Institute was known for its often anarchic programme and administration. Norman Rosenthal, then director of exhibitions, was once assaulted by a group of people who were living in the upper floors of the building: a bloodstain on the wall of the administrative offices is preserved under glass, with a note reading "this is Normans's blood". Rosenthal claims the group which assaulted him included the actor Keith Allen.
Bill McAllister was ICA Director from 1977 to 1990, when the Institute developed a system of separate departments specializing in visual art; cinema; and theatre, music and performance art. A fourth department was devoted to talks and lectures. Press Officer Sandy Broughton was responsible for publicizing the ICA in her tenure from 1978 to 1986, and she is credited with raising the profile of the Institute and bringing "a much-needed touch of professionalism to the ICA" Iwona Blazwick was Director of Exhibitions from 1986 to 1993. Other notable curatorial and programming staff have included:Lisa Appignanesi, Deputy Director of ICA and Head of Talks, 1980–90,
James Lingwood, Exhibition Curator, 1986–90,
Michael Morris, Director of Theatre,
Lois Keidan, Director of Live Arts, 1992–97,
Catherine Ugwu, MBE, Deputy Director of Live Arts, 1991–97,
Simon Field, Director of Cinema, 1988–2004,
Tim Highsted, Deputy Director of Cinema, 1988–95,
Linda Brandon, Head of Talks, 1988–92,
Helena Reckitt, Deputy Director and Head of Talks, 1991–98,
Alan Read, Director of Talks, 1995–2002,
Emma Dexter, Director of Exhibitions, 1992–2000,
Jens Hoffmann, Director of Exhibitions, 2003–07
Kate Bush, Deputy Director of Exhibitions, 1994–97.
Mik Flood took over as director of the ICA in 1990 after McAllister's resignation. Flood announced that the Institute would have to leave its Mall location and move to a larger site, a plan which ultimately came to nothing. He also oversaw a sponsorship scheme whereby the electrical goods company Toshiba paid to have their logo included on every piece of ICA publicity for three years, and in effect changed the name of the ICA to ICA/Toshiba. He was replaced as Director in 1997 by Philip Dodd. In 2002, the then ICA Chairman Ivan Massow criticised what he described as "concept art", leading to his resignation.
The ICA appointed Ekow Eshun Artistic Director in 2005 following the departure of Philip Dodd. Under Eshun's directorship the Live Arts Department was closed down in 2008, the charge for admission for non-members was abandoned (resulting a reduction of membership numbers and a cash shortfall), the Talks Department lost all its personnel, and many commentators argued that the Institute suffered from a lack of direction. A large financial deficit led to redundancies and resignations of key staff. Art critic JJ Charlesworth saw Eshun’s directorship as a direct cause of the ICA’s ills. He criticized his reliance on private sponsorship, his cultivation of a "cool" ICA brand, and his focus on a cross-disciplinary approach that was put in place "at the cost," Charlesworth wrote, "of a loss of curatorial expertise." Problems between staff and Eshun, sometimes supported by the Chairman of the ICA Board, Alan Yentob, led to fractious and difficult staff relations. Eshun resigned in August 2010, and Yentob announced he would leave.
The ICA appointed Mark Sladen as Director of Exhibitions in 2007 to replace Jens Hoffmann who was appointed Director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in 2006. Sladen left the post in 2010.
Alison Myners replaced Alan Yentob as Chair of the ICA Council in October 2010.
The ICA appointed Gregor Muir as its new Executive Director in January 2011, taking up his post on 7 February 2011.
1948: 40 Years of Modern Art, the ICA's first exhibition organised by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose (10 February to 8 March, at Academy Hall, Oxford Street, W1).
1948: 40,000 Years of Modern Art, the ICA's second exhibition organised by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose.
1950: London-Paris. New Trends in Painting and Sculpture - launching the Geometry of Fear sculptors.
1952 Sixteen Young Sculptors organised by David Sylvester.
1952: Formation of the "Young Group," consisting of artists Nigel Henderson, Toni de Benzio, Reyner Banham and Richard Lannoy, facilitated by the ICA Assistant Director Dorothy Morland.
1953: Herbert Read delivers four lectures under the title "The Aesthetics of Sculpture".
1953: Alfred Barr, Director of New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) delivers a lecture entitled "They hate Modern Art or Patterns of Philistine Power".
1953: The Independent Group, including the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, begins meeting at the ICA. This leads ultimately to the launch of British Pop Art. The leading theorist of the group, Lawrence Alloway, lectures on "The Human Head in Modern Art".
1953: Jackson Pollock features in a show called Opposing Forces.
1955: Public Discussion on the works of Francis Bacon with Lawrence Alloway and Victor Willing.
1956: Richard Wollheim delivers a lecture entitled "Art and Theory".
1956: Meyer Shapiro delivers a lecture entitled "Recent Abstract Painting in America".
1956: Ernst Gombrich delivers a lecture entitled "Aspects of Communication through Painting".
1956: Richard Hamilton, Anthony Hill and Colin St. John Wilson in public discussion "Revaluation of Duchamp", the first revaluation of Marcel Duchamp in Britain after the Second World War.
1957: First UK screening of the French film Hurlements en Faveur de Sade by Guy Debord, which caused riots when shown in Paris because it mostly featured a black screen and silence.
1957: Paintings by Chimpanzees, curated by then ICA Director Desmond Morris.
1966-68: Yoko Ono contributes to Destruction in Art Symposium orchestrated by Gustav Metzger.
1968: The inaugural exhibition in the Nash building The Obsessive Image features a waxwork model of a dead hippie by Paul Thek. The Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition features computers, pulsing TV screens and a mosaic floor made of coloured lights.
1976: Mary Kelly exhibits the first part of Post-Partum Document, an exploration of the mother-child relationship developed between 1973 and 1979. Each section highlights a formative moment in her son’s mastery of language, along with the artist's sense of loss. Informed by feminism and psychoanalysis, the work alternately adopts the voice of the mother, the child, and an analytic observer. The installation provoked tabloid outrage at the ICA because of stained (but laundered) nappy liners incorporated in Documentation I.
1976: A retrospective of COUM Transmissions (Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti who subsequently formed Throbbing Gristle) entitled Prostitution features sanitary towels and explicit photographs. The exhibition is held concurrently with Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document.
1980: Concert by This Heat released as a CD in 2007.
1980: Sees several important feminist art exhibitions: 4–26 October, "Women's Images of Men" (curated by Joyce Agee, Jacqueline Morreau, Catherine Elwes, Pat Whiteread); 30 October–9 November: 'About Time: Video, Performance and Installation by 21 Women Artists' (curated by Catherine Elwes, Rose Garrard, Sandy Nairne); 14 November–21 December: "Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists" (curated by Lucy R. Lippard).
1986: Helen Chadwick’s stinking pile of rotting vegetables, Carcass, is removed after complaints from neighbours and a visit by health inspectors.
1988: Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics, organised by Erica Carter and Simon Watney, tackles cultural and activist responses to the AIDS crisis. A book of the same name is published by Serpent's Tail in 1989.
1989: Gerhard Richter shows black and white oil paintings of the Baader-Meinhof gang inspired by contemporary newspaper and police photographs.
1990: Vaclav Havel launches Censored Theatre, a programme of readings of suppressed plays. The first reading of Death and the Maiden by the young Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, is performed by actors including Juliet Stevenson. Harold Pinter, in the audience, said the play "felt like it was a sequel to his own 1984 play One for the Road, which also revolved around a woman who had been raped and tortured".
1991: Damien Hirst’s exhibition International Affairs, his first solo exhibition in a public gallery, features glass cases containing items such as a desk, cigarette packets and an ashtray.
1992: The conference Preaching to the Perverted, organised with The Spanner Trust asks, "are fetishistic practices politically radical?"
1993: The exhibition Bad Girls, curated by Kate Bush and Emma Dexter, celebrates a new spirit of playfulness, tactility and perverse humour in the work of six British and US women artists: Helen Chadwick, Dorothy Cross, Rachel Evans, Nicole Eisenman, Nan Goldin and Sue Williams.
1994: A video camera is set up in the men’s toilets, and real-time images of urinating visitors are relayed to a screen in the theatre in a piece by Rosa Sanchez.
1994: The world's first Cybercafe is held in the ICA theatre.
1995: Bear and Five Easy Pieces, films by future Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, are included in the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire curated by David A. Bailey and organised with InIVA. Other artists whose work is included are Sonia Boyce, Eddie George and Trevor Mathison of Black Audio Film Collective, Renée Green, Lyle Ashton Harris, Isaac Julien, Marc Latamie, and Glenn Ligon. An accompanying symposium, Working with Fanon, debates the legacy of Frantz Fanon within the context of art and visual representation. Speakers include Homi K Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, bell hooks, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, Raoul Peck, Ntozake Shange, Françoise Versages, and Lola Young.
1996: Jake and Dinos Chapman display Tragic Anatomies, sculptures of children with genitalia in place of facial features, as part of their exhibition Chapman World.
1996: The Onedotzero digital film festival is hosted at the ICA for the first time.
1996: Incarcerated with Artaud and Genet traces the legacies of the avant-garde French writers in a weekend event with participants including the writer and musician Patti Smith, writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and theatre director Peter Sellars.
1997: Four female models, naked apart from high-heeled shoes, stand in mute silence in an upstairs gallery for a piece by Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft as part of the show Made in Italy.
2000-05: The annual Beck’s Futures prize is set up to celebrate the work of emerging artists.
2006: The Alien Nation exhibition is presented with inIVA, exploring the complex relationship between science fiction, race and contemporary art. Among the featured artists are Laylah Ali, Hew Locke and Yinka Shonibare.
2008: Over a six-month period, and as part of the ICA's 60th birthday year, the exhibition Nought to Sixty presents 60 emerging artists based in Britain and Ireland.
2010: The first major solo exhibition of cult figure, artist, musician and writer Billy Childish is presented at the ICA.
2011: The ICA hosts Bruderskriegsoundsystem, the latest project from Edwin Burdis, Mark Leckey, Kieron Livingston and Steven Claydon. Pablo Bronstein's exhibition Sketches for Regency Living takes over all of the ICA building for the first time in its history.
2012: The Remote Control exhibition took a historical look at television's influence on contemporary art.
2015: The ICA hosts fig-2, a one-year series of week long exhibitions curated by Fatos Ustek which included the artists: Laura Eldret, Charles Avery, Rebecca Birch, Annika Ström, Beth Collar, Tom McCarthy, Shezad Dawood, Suzanne Treister, Jacopo Miliani, Kathryn Elkin, Marjolijn Dijkman, Ben Judd, Karen Mirza, Oreet Ashery, Eva Grubinger, Melanie Manchot, Bruce McLean and Vesna Petresin.