IETM was created in 1981 at an informal gathering of performing arts professionals at the Polverigi Festival in Italy. It was time when international collaboration was to a large extent performed by and through governmental and intergovernmental institutions. As the first European cultural network, it was founded by professionals and for professionals in order to create a space of exchange to reinforce and strengthen international collaboration in the thriving independent performing arts sector in Europe.

IETM developed, organising ‘meetings’ twice a year with debates and performance programmes, but without a formal association, structure or status. In 1989 it became a not-for-profit international organisation under Belgian law with a Secretariat and membership fees.

From 1989, IETM (a predominantly EU-based membership) was active in including colleagues from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, and from 1994, those from the countries around the Mediterranean. From 2003, IETM also became active as a bridge between its professional members in Europe and those in Asia (including Central Asia), Africa and the Americas, although its main membership still comes from Europe.

With the number of members growing consistently each year, and representing an increasingly diverse range of interdisciplinary contemporary performing arts, in 2005 IETM dropped its original title Informal European Theatre Meeting to become simply ‘IETM’ with the strapline ‘International network for contemporary performing arts”.