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The activist group Culture Workers Against Genocide has claimed that layoffs at ICA were motivated by previous Palestinian solidarity action undertaken without management's consent.

ICA exterior
The Institute of Contemporary Arts
Photo: 

Matt Brown via Flickr

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) has said allegations that a recent round of layoffs singled out staff who had previously participated in Palestinian solidarity action are “categorically false”.

The claims, made by the activist group Culture Workers Against Genocide (CWAG) and former staff members, relate to an open letter posted on the ICA’s website on 19 October ahead of the organisation's closure as part of a general strike condemning Israel's military action in Gaza. The letter pledged solidarity with Palestine and urged the organisation to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but according to CWAG, it was posted without sign-off from management.

In a statement posted on 5 July, CWAG accused the ICA of using a structural reorganisation in March, in which 14 employees were told their posts were at risk of redundancy, to target all of those previously given an informal warning over the letter, as well as the trade union staff who supported them in talks with management.

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ICA has been publicly supportive of Palestine, taking part in the cultural strike on 20 October and opening the following day as a shelter for protesters calling for a ceasefire. It holds an annual Paletininam film festival, exhibits Palestinian artists, and has hosted related events, including ‘Silencing in the Arts on Solidarity with Palestine’.

However, CWAG has called on the organisation to commit to the principles of BDS by ceasing banking with Barclays, which has been accused of investing in Israeli arms companies, and ending its association with law firm Mischon de Reya, which it claims has close ties to the Israeli state.

'Immense pressures'

An ICA spokesperson said suggestions the redundancies were motivated by Palestinian solidarity action are "categorically false".

In a statement, Director Bengi Ünsal said the ICA's restructuring was made in response to “immense pressures", including the pandemic, inflation and changing patterns in donations and grants, which had left the organisation in deficit for the last few years.

A National Portfolio Organisation, the ICA had its annual investment from Arts Council England cut by £200,000 in the latest funding round but was awarded £150,000 as part of the funding body's Transform programme to support it in redeveloping its business model to manage lower funding levels. 

ICA's most recent accounts, made up to 31 March 2023, reveal that its total income derived from grants, donations, and legacies had dropped from £2.8m the previous year to £1.1m. The ICA's fiscal year 2023/24 deficit is expected to be around £800,000.

Ünsal said: "While our reserves helped us through the initial period of turbulence, this was never going to be a realistic answer to the problem over the longer term. The board and senior leadership considered the matter carefully; however, we were left with no option other than to restructure the organisation, which sadly involved redundancies.

"Our priority throughout has been our colleagues and their wellbeing, and we have been doing everything we can to support them.”

However, former ICA staff members have refuted his statement, with one telling The Arts Newspaper: “The ICA has been struggling financially for years. I believe they are using it as a smokescreen.”

The anonymous source also told The Arts Newspaper that the ICA had lost a private donation because of reasons related to the Israel-Hamas war and claimed the organisation submitted itself to a review from ACE over the publication of the open letter. The former staffer described the amount of the donation as “not significant” and added that ACE's review had found no basis to rescind funding because of the letter.

ACE confirmed it was informed by ICA about issues relating to members of staff and a website management issue on 19 October 2023. In response, the funding body said it asked ICA's leadership to confirm they were following relevant policies and procedures, including supporting staff members and managing website security.

Acknowledging that ICA and its staff are undergoing a challenging period of transition, ACE said it has stayed in close contact with the leadership team while they seek to address their financial challenges. 

Author(s): 
A headshot of Mary Stone