Designer and RA Trustee, Anya Hindmarch and artist Allen Jones joined forces to create a memorable charity auction event.
LONDON - The Royal Academy is about to embark on its most ambitious expansion in years. With the architect David Chipperfield on board, the RA will join its main Burlington House building and the RA Schools to 6 Burlington Gardens, the former Museum of Mankind, creating new galleries and social spaces, refurbishing some of the existing architecture and providing a route through the entire complex.
It is significant that the new development’s first high profile fundraising moment is not the announcement of a lottery grant, but a project that goes to the core of the Academy’s ethos and history as an artist-run organisation. RA Now is an exhibition of works by every single current Royal Academician, each one given for an auction to raise funds for the building project (read blog posts by Anya Hindmarch and Charles Saumarez Smith).
“It is a snapshot of now,” says Anya Hindmarch, the handbag designer and an RA Trustee, “like a census of artists.” Allen Jones was one of the artists charged with persuading his peers to donate their works to the cause. “My thing as a practising artist was that if we wanted to advertise the worth of the Academy for sponsors who we are asking to put up a lot of money, it might be worth doing more than simply having an auction,” Jones explains. “It makes the occasion the first chance that I can see in the history of the Academy in which one would have a work from each member but rather than just have an auction, one would make an exhibition, and that would, in a way, be a declaration of the state of the union.”
The aim was to persuade artists to give substantial works, Jones says. “Most of the artists that I spoke to wanted to know, ‘What’s everyone else handing in?’” he explains. “And since I had to face the dilemma myself, my answer was that it would be good if it was something that, in an exhibition with your peers and fellow members, you won’t say ‘Oh well, it was just the only thing left.’ I wanted them to be able to feel that it was a signature work.”
Jones, who has given a large bronze figure, Enchantresse, 2010, is clearly thrilled with the responses of Ed Ruscha, an honorary Academician, who has donated what Jones describes as a “dense, classic Ruscha, which is just wonderful,” and another celebrated Los Angeles figure, architect Frank Gehry, who has given an architectural model. “I was always aware whenever I went to Gehry’s studio that they look more like Cubist montages and assemblages than what I expected an architect’s working model to be,” Jones says. “They start in a very funky way, and we are getting a model from him, which is just terrific.”
Allen Jones donated Enchantresse to the auction which will raise funds for the RA’s expansion.
The Royal Academy’s President, the painter Christopher Le Brun, says that similarly high quality works are being pledged by all the artists. “That is quite a major thing because if you are giving a picture, you are actually losing a sale,” he says. It leaves Le Brun and his colleagues with a welcome dilemma in turning this gathering of works, by artists as diverse as Tacita Dean and Bill Woodrow, David Hockney and Cornelia Parker, into a coherent exhibition. “The curatorial problem is to make everybody look good, right across the board, and that is not straightforward,” Le Brun says. “We live with that because we do the summer show every year, so we are used to it, but on the other hand it is still a complicated mix of aesthetic views and philosophies.”
The Academy’s position at the core of British culture, a great public institution, often obscures its unique funding model. Many people remain unaware that it gets no state funding, instead relying on a loyal membership, ticket sales and various private funding sources. One of the core elements of the new masterplan is the creation of better facilities for the RA’s Friends in the old Keeper’s House, once a bespoke home for the head of the Schools – its interior will be designed by Chipperfield together with Tracey Emin, a relatively new recruit to the RAs.
Hindmarch, who advised on the Keeper’s House interior, has spent much time considering the RA’s brand since joining the trustees four years ago. “It is a special place that gets under your skin, and it has a special brand,” she says. “If people think about the RA they sometimes say it is a bit old fashioned, but I think that is its strength, actually – from Hockney to Russian masterpieces, it can do anything. That makes it a very exciting place.”
Hindmarch speaks of the RA with more than the official duty of a Trustee. She is clearly besotted with the place, passionate about its history and its eccentricity, and thoughtful about its place in British culture. “The RA should never be cool, that would be rather boring, I think”, she says. “The RA is that nice mixture of ages and styles and that’s what makes it – it is not trendy at all.” Having been in charge of the RA’s VIP event for the Summer Exhibition in recent years, Hindmarch is responsible for the party the night before the auction, which will help to drum up excitement. “It’s a big moment for the RA,” she says.
A rendering of The Belle Shenkman Room, one of architect David Chipperfield’s designs for the RA’s new space.
Le Brun feels that RA Now reflects a membership that is hugely changed even from a decade ago. “Within that last decade, we must have voted in another 30 members or so, and it’s becoming pretty clear to me that people want to be part of the Academy, which is a big change,” he says.
Its galleries, too, are being re-evaluated. A decade ago, industrial spaces were the artist’s space of choice, but Le Brun believes the tide is turning. “I think it is fair to say that the consensus at the moment among artists is that the ideal exhibiting spaces are more likely to be at the Royal Academy,” he says. “The Kapoor show and the Hockney show looked extraordinary here. And they also had a quality of the exhibition that looked as if we’d done it in our own way. Despite the fact that they are grand, Beaux Arts galleries, they felt completely right, and alive, somehow.”
So does the RA need the additional space that the new project will provide? “It is not just about space, it is about being able to show the variety of the Academy,” he says. “Burlington House is to some extent dominated by fine art, quite rightly, but a lot of young people are interested in photography, design, technology, fashion, all of which is not strictly speaking fine art, but it is art. By having this building, we can find a way for them to come straight in to this big centre of visual culture. They may find the front of Burlington House intimidating – the courtyard, the statues, the staircase – but at the back, you have got all the people who are coming past shopping, who may think, ‘Well, I may just go into the RA here.’ We can just open the place up.”
With RA Now, this new vision of the Academy will take a huge step closer to becoming a reality.
Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]