Charles Saumarez Smith: Redefining The Royal Academy of Arts

With its grand premises on Piccadilly fronted by a monumental bronze statue of its first president, the 18th century painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Academy of Arts seems the epitome of the British art establishment. But appearances can be deceptive. Yes, the RA was founded in 1768 through a personal act of King George III, and yes, its membership has included such art historical greats as Hogarth, Blake, Constable and Turner, and yes, it also has a formidable reputation for putting on an internationally acclaimed programme of blockbuster exhibitions, as well as the two centuries old national institution that is its open submission Summer Exhibition. But the RA also has its radical side. Not only is it the world’s oldest independent artist-run space, but it is also home to one of the most progressive and prestigious art schools, both in the UK and worldwide. Additionally, the RA Schools are unique – in this country at least – in that they do not charge any tuition fees.

As it prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2018 with a major refurbishment and redevelopment, the RA is set to pep up its profile and shed more light on the range of its different activities. Designed by the eminent architect Sir David Chipperfield RA, the refurbishment will provide new spaces and facilities for students, exhibitions, events and visitors, as well as join up its two historical buildings, and see the opening of a new main entrance opposite Cork Street on Burlington Gardens. Here, the RA’s Chief Executive Charles Saumarez Smith explains this most venerable but also surprisingly progressive institution’s new plans and vision for the future.


Charles Saumarez Smith ©Benedict Johnson

Louisa Buck The Royal Academy is a rare – perhaps unique – beast in all the different roles that it plays isn’t it?

Charles Saumarez Smith: Yes it is. Originally there were loads and loads of academies – pretty much every European city had an academy – but not many of them have survived and do all the things that we do. We do exhibitions, teaching, and we represent leading artists. There are plenty of academies that do teaching – as in Berlin – and there are some that represent prominent figures – as in Madrid or Stockholm – but I don’t think there are any that have this very unusual combination of doing all three alongside one another, and which are also still being run by artists.

LB: And also which receive virtually no public funding?

CSS: Lots and lots of people say “oh, but you do get some money from the government, don’t you” and it is true, we have received money for the upcoming development from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and we benefit from government indemnity, and we pay peppercorn rent on the buildings. But we are not Arts Council funded, and nor do we get a grant from the Department of Culture. In fact we turned it down in the 19th century and then when we went cap in hand in the 1960s we were told we’d lost the opportunity. But I think in a weird way we have benefited from the fact that we are used to living without government funding. It allows us to be a bit more open and free in the way that we relate to the world.

LB: A lot of people don’t realise that the RA has a thriving art school at its centre. Is the new scheme going to change this perception?

CSS: To be honest when I started here I did know that there was an art school, but I didn’t realise that it was at the heart of the operation. So yes, one of the things which we are keen to do through the new building project is to reveal the fact that we’re not just an exhibition venue, but that we also have an art school down in the basement which has existed since 1769, and which still operates, increasingly successfully, today. In the new development you’ll come in the front door on Burlington Gardens and be able to go straight down through the art school which will give it greater visibility. There will be an RA Schools project space where students can show work to the public throughout the year, as well as new studios and a newly landscaped Schools Courtyard which will extend the campus for students at the heart of the RA. We are also building a completely new 260 seat lecture theatre where we’ll be able to put on lectures, debates and conferences, all of which will show that the RA is not just about exhibiting but also about exchange of information and debate.


Royal Academy Schools’ studios in use ©Benedict Johnson

LB: How are you opening up the historical buildings?

CSS: The original building that everyone is familiar with on Piccadilly is essentially a 17th century private house which, in 1868, was made into an exhibition venue by way of the creation of the big grand top-lit galleries above, with the art school down below. To the north on Burlington Gardens is the original 19th century building of the University of London. The central idea of the whole project is simply to create a bridge linking theses two buildings so you will be able to walk right through from one to the other. The University of London building will enable us to do things for the schools that were not possible before, as well as to open up parts of the RA formerly hidden from public view, especially the Cast Corridor, designed by Sydney Smirke, who also designed the big Burlington House galleries. Another important factor is that we will also be able to show some of the major works from our collection for the first time.


Royal Academy Schools’ studios in use ©Benedict Johnson

LB: The fact that the RA has a great art collection is something else that’s not so well known.

CSS: Yes, we’ve got Constables, we’ve got a fine Gainsborough and we’ve got a Turner. Then, over the years, each artist that has become an RA has given a so-called ‘diploma work’ so we have an amazing sequence of works from 1768 onwards. Alongside that there have also been all kinds of bequests and donations and pieces which were given or acquired, and for the first time we will also be able to show major works from our collection in a new gallery in Burlington House, as well as throughout the two buildings. We’ve got the Taddei Tondo, the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in Great Britain, which we will now be able to show much better, and also a 16th century copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper which we’ll show properly for the first time. We’ve also got copies of the Raphael Cartoons which were created in the early 18th century which we will show as well.



The Link Bridge viewed from the Schools Courtyard in 2018. Image credit: David Chipperfield Architects

LB: The RA is also unusual in the broad range of its exhibitions, from the often very historical – including recent shows of Rubens and Giorgione – to ambitious survey shows such as the forthcoming survey of Russian Revolutionary Art. Then increasingly you seem to be showing living artists, whether David Hockney, Anish Kapoor or Ai Weiwei. Will this continue?

CSS: It is a rich mix and that’s unusual. Traditionally we started doing major cultural exhibitions right back in the 1920s and when I came I found it slightly odd that we represented all the contemporary artists but we didn’t actually show their work. The orthodoxy was that you could do big historical shows and make it work financially, but that people wouldn’t come to contemporary art shows. But that’s not true any more. Our Anish Kapoor exhibition in 2009 attracted 270,000 visitors, and for Ai Weiwei last year it was getting on for 400,000. We’ve got these absolutely wonderful big, daylit galleries which are surprisingly adaptable for all kinds of shows.

LB: Although the RA was originally set up to raise the professional status of artists and to establish a system of training and expert judgment, for quite a time both the RA and its Academicians were regarded as quite stuffy and reactionary. But over the last decade or so the RA has had something of a renaissance with the likes of Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, Conrad Shawcross and Gary Hume all being elected as RAs, as well as a whole slew of major international Honorary RAs including Jenny Holzer, Marina Abramović, Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter.

CSS: I sense that from the 1930s through to the 1960s it was very conservative and even with some of the current generation of older Academicians you can sometimes tell that when they were at art school they were brought up to think that it was a bad idea to be associated or connected with the RA. But from the 1960s onwards, former RA president Sir Hugh Casson brought in lots of people from the Royal College of Art, and then in 2001 Gary Hume accepted and since then I think it has lost that taboo. Now artists are pleased and proud to be chosen by their peers to be an RA.You have to gather a huge amount of support from the artistic community in order to be elected so it’s an incredible compliment, a wonderful thing. Also, the year before last, out of the six people who got elected, five were women, so that’s another shift.


Anish Kapoor RA, Shooting into the Corner, 2008–09. Mixed video, Dimensions variable, MAK, Vienna, Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art. Installed at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2009. Photography: Dave Morgan

LB: Do you think the main entrance opening on Burlington Gardens will have an impact on its surroundings, as well as reorienting the RA?

CSS: The traditional Royal Academy is within a courtyard off Piccadilly, whereas the old University of London Building is a 19th century public building on the street opposite Cecconi’s and faces the bottom end of Cork Street. So in the past we’ve been a Piccadilly and St James’s institution and now we will become more of a Mayfair and Cork Street institution. I think the new development will change the look and feel of the Royal Academy because you will now have the site as a whole, and it will be be a very big site. But our local area is changing too. There was a moment in the 1990s where lots of galleries moved out to the east of London but now it feels as if lots of them are moving back to Mayfair because they want to be near their clients who will be staying at Claridge’s, The Connaught or The Ritz, as well as going to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. So I do think there’s an opportunity for this neighbourhood to become a bit more like Chelsea in New York where people can come and visit the galleries at the weekend as well as in the week, and as part of that they can also visit exhibitions and attend talks and events at the Royal Academy.

Interview by Louisa Buck
Current and forthcoming exhibitions:
Abstract Expressionism from 24 September 2016 –
2 January 2017, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 from 11 February – 17 February 2017