Charles Saumarez Smith talks about the history and future of the Royal Academy, and why the institution remains a relevant voice for contemporary art
The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 and it was only 100 years later that it began to hold loan exhibitions alongside its annual Summer Exhibition. By the 1920s, these had become big, international affairs, including an exhibition of Spanish painting in 1920, a Bicentenary exhibition of the work of its founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, an exhibition of Australian art in 1923, an exhibition of Flemish and Belgian art in 1927, and the great exhibition of Italian art in 1930.
In the post-war period, the Royal Academy suffered from being viewed as very conservative, partly due to an infamous speech at its annual dinner when its then president, Alfred Munnings, recalled that Winston Churchill had once said to him, ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his…?’ However, in the 1970s, the Royal Academy began to reinvent itself. It held increasingly important and popular exhibitions, including ‘The Age of Neo-Classicism’ in 1972, ‘Pompeii AD 79’ in 1976, and ‘Post-Impressionism’ in 1979.
By the 1990s, the generation who were brought up in post-war art schools to revile the Academy were growing old. The next generation of artists was more sympathetic to the idea of an artists’ community, to the fact that the Academy was private, not part of the instruments of state, and that election to it was by their fellow artists. David Hockney was elected an Associate in 1985 and a full member in 1991. Anish Kapoor was elected in 1999, Gary Hume in 2001, Antony Gormley in 2003 and Tracey Emin in 2007. Tony Caro, who had declined election in 1990, accepted in 2004.
By the time that I arrived as Secretary and Chief Executive in 2007, the Academy had acquired the old University of London building immediately to the north of its Burlington House home. In 2008, David Chipperfield, elected in 2007, was selected as the architect to oversee its renovation and produced ambitious plans to connect the two buildings with a bridge.
When the new building project opens in 2018, the year of the RA’s 250th anniversary, it will provide an ambitious new façade to the Academy, facing north, opposite Cecconi’s restaurant, with a grand new public lecture theatre, symbolising the fact that the Academy is a place not just of exhibition, but of debate. Upstairs there will be a big space dedicated to the display of the Academy’s own collection. There will be a new set of galleries, dedicated to more contemporary exhibitions, including architecture. And the public will be able to walk through to the original building by way of a route through our art school.
The history of the Royal Academy is one of renovation and reinvention. Nowadays, the fact that it is entirely private and self-run gives it freedom from government control and to act as a voice for the practice of contemporary art.
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