The first two exhibitions at the ICA, 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 18 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. The first woman to exhibit there was Fahrelnissa Zeid in 1956. 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.
Institute of Contemporary Arts
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. 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), Tim Highsted (Deputy Director of Cinema, 1988–95) and Jens Hoffmann (Director of Exhibitions, 2003–07).
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 that 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.
Following the departure of Dodd, the ICA appointed Ekow Eshun as Artistic Director in 2005. Under Eshun's directorship the Live Arts Department was closed down in 2008, the charge for admission for non-members was abandoned (resulting in 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; criticizing Eshun's 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.
1967: Ian Dury, Pat Douthwaite, Herbert Kitchen and Stass Paraskos exhibition Fantasy and Figuration. Dury was to become a celebrated punk rock musician, and Stass Paraskos had, in 1966, been the last artist in Britain to be successfully prosecuted for showing obscene paintings under the Vagrancy Act 1838.
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 (developed between 1973 and 1979) of the mother-child relationship. 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 newspaper outrage because of stained (but laundered) nappy liners incorporated in "Documentation I".
1977: Adam and the Ants, at this point known simply as The Ants, perform their official debut concert in the restaurant. Singer Adam Ant's stage costume at this point includes a bondage hood and other leather garments. The performance is aborted by venue staff after one song, "Beat My Guest" (later the B-side of major hit single "Stand and Deliver"), but is resumed and completed later that day in the main theatre during the interval of a performance by John Dowie and Victoria Wood.
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);
14 November–21 December: Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists (curated by Lucy R. Lippard).
1981: Roger Westman exhibited his scheme Walls: A Framework for Communal Anarchy.
1986: Helen Chadwick’s artwork Carcass, consisting of composting vegetation in a perspex tower, is removed after the gasses from the compost caused the tower to give way. The smell led to complaints from neighbours and a visit by health inspectors. The main part of the exhibition, 'The Oval Court' (a major installation of sculptural forms, photocopies of animals, vegetation and the artist's body) was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its permanent collection.
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.
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 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?"
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: The annual Beck’s Futures prize is set up to celebrate the work of emerging artists, and continues at the ICA until 2005.
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, a project from Edwin Burdis, Mark Leckey, Kieron Livingston and Steven Claydon. Pablo Bronstein's exhibition Sketches for Regency Living takes over the entire ICA building for the first time in its history.
2016: The first edition of FRAMES of REPRESENTATION (FoR) film festival was launched on the 20th of April 2016. FoR was conceived to engage with new visions of cinema through the presentation of innovative and politically aware cinematic languages situated at the intersection between fiction and non-fiction. Throughout its ongoing annual event, the festival presented international and UK premieres of films by Roberto Minervini, Khalik Allah, Salome' Lamas, Wang Bing, Clement Cogitore, Teddy Williams, Nele Wohlatz, Betzabe' Garcia, Anna Zamecka, Gürcan Keltek, Pietro Marcello, Zhao Liang, Yalda Afsah, Rosa Barba, Ana Vaz, Isabel Pagliai, Dorian Jespers, Alexander Abaturov, Zhu Shengze to mention a few; masterclasses, workshops and conversations with speaker guests such as Walter Murch, Gianfranco Rosi, Laura Poitras, Joshua Oppenheimer and Carlos Reygadas amongst many others. The fifth edition of the festival originally planned for April 2020 was postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic but due to taking place at the end of 2020. 
^Nannette Aldred, 'A sufficient Flow of Vital Ideas: Herbert Read and the Flow of Ideas from the Leeds Arts Club to the ICA' in Michael Paraskos (ed.) Re-Reading Read: New Views on Herbert Read (London: Freedom Press, 2008) p. 70.
^Massey, A. (1995). The Independent Group: modernism and mass culture in Britain, 1945-59. Manchester (England): Manchester University Press.
^Sile Flower, Jean Macfarlane, Ruth Plant, Jane B. Drew, architect: A tribute from her colleagues and friends for her 75th birthday 24 March 1986, p. 23. Bristol: Bristol Centre for the Advancement of Architecture, 1986, ISBN0-9510759-0-X.