Bengi Ünsal named the new director of London’s “iconic” Institute of Contemporary Arts

A British Turk is set to become head of one of the UK’s most prestigious cultural centres. Bengi Ünsal has been appointed as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA).

Currently based at the Southbank Centre, Ünsal will take over the running of the ICA in March 2022. The news was announced last Friday, 7 January.

As well as being of ethnic Turkish origin, Ünsal will also be the first woman to serve as the organisation’s director in 55 years.

Her appointment comes as the ICA, which is located on The Mall (just off Trafalgar Square), prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The long-established institute delivers a broad cultural mix of visual arts, film, music and education programmes, which Ünsal will oversee, as well as commissioning, producing and presenting live performances.

Bengi Ünsal’s career from Istanbul to the Southbank Centre

The 46 year-old will arrive following five years at the Southbank Centre, where as Head of Contemporary Music she has overseen an annual programme of more than 200 contemporary performances and supported guest curators for the annual Meltdown festival, including MIA (2017), Robert Smith (2018), Nile Rodgers (2019) and Grace Jones (planned for 2020, postponed to 2022 due to Covid-19).

During her tenure at the Southbank Ünsal championed a series of new initiatives, including the Purcell Sessions, a series dedicated to multidisciplinary artistic innovation; Concrete Lates, the Southbank Centre’s first late-night series; and Futuretense, a public performance platform presenting the best untapped talent in British and international music.

The Turkish cultural maestro cut her teeth in cultural events and music in Istanbul. Prior to London, she served first as the artistic and later the managing director of the city’s live performance and multi-arts venue, Salon IKSV.

She has also served as the managing director of cutting edge label Doublemoon Records, which covered a range of genres from jazz and world, to hip hop, acoustic and electronic each with an Anatolian lilt. Notable artists included BaBa ZuLa, Mercan Dede, and Wax Poetic, as well as numerous compilations, such as the East 2 West series, and Istanbul Twilight.

Her career has also seen run her own events company, launch a festival, and work for radio stations, music TV channels, and global record labels Universal Music and BMG.

ICA: “one of the most iconic & progressive organisations for contemporary arts in the world”

A trustee of the Music Venue Trust and the Nest Collective, Ünsal will take over at the ICA from Stefan Kalmár, who served as the ICA’s director from 2016 until 2021.

Bengi Ünsal said: “I am incredibly proud to be joining one of the most iconic and progressive organisations for contemporary arts in the world, one that is such an inspiration to me and so many others.

“We are living through a time that is challenging everything we know about work, life, the world, our connectivity. In a time of such questioning, it is vital that the space for culture, art, and expression is safeguarded to help us make sense of it all. We need our cultural institutions to be the platforms which allow artists to do just that.”

She added: “Artists of today are genre-fluid and connected, their expression limited only by their imaginations. The ICA, with the diversity of its spaces and specialists, can become a home for these artists to create and inspire; a space where our rapidly evolving communities are more truthfully represented and welcomed; a hub for creative encounters.

“After all, this is the ICA’s legacy. From the Independent Group to musicians, filmmakers, and thinkers, for 75 years, this has been a place where artists could be bold and challenge the status quo. I look forward to working with my incredible new colleagues to shape its future as a platform for independent, contemporary art and culture and the ultimate home for cultural expression globally.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, ICA Chair, said: “My colleagues and I are enormously excited that Bengi has agreed to join us at this crucial moment in the ICA’s history. Bengi has already started developing and sharing her ideas and plans on how she will shape a programme across all artforms and all areas of our building, taking the organisation back to its multidisciplinary heyday with a programme rooted firmly in the here and now. I can’t wait to see what she brings to the ICA.”


Image top, of Bengi Ünsal. Photo © Muhsin Akgün