Royal Academy of Arts

A New Era: Charles Saumarez Smith on the Revitalised Royal Academy

By Alex Morrison

The Wohl Entrance Hall, Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, Photo: Rory Mulvey

On 2 January 1769, a crowd gathered inside Lambe’s Auction Rooms in Pall Mall, London. Joshua Reynolds, by this time regarded as Britain’s greatest living painter, began his first official discourse as president of the newly established Royal Academy of Arts. This elite institution, devoted to the promotion and development of British contemporary art, was founded barely three weeks earlier under the patronage of King George III. These lofty beginnings brought with them a stuffy reputation in the eyes of some. Two hundred and fifty years on, however, the RA has revealed a major transformation.

The £56 million redevelopment, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, joins up the RA’s main site, which until now has been split between two mansions – Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. It includes new spaces that bring the work of the famous RA Schools to the fore and allow an expanded programme of exhibitions, displays and events. Among these is the new Collection Gallery, which features works the RA has acquired, such as Michelengelo’s Taddei Tondo, a 16th-century circular sculptural relief. “This gallery shows, in a way we have never previously been able to, key works from the first 50 to 60 years, which were vital in the development of the academy,” says chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith.

Michelangelo, Taddei Tondo (The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John), c.1504–1505, © Royal Academy of Arts, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

The RA is, and always has been, governed by its Royal Academicians. Today they total 127 artists and architects – 80 of whom are under the age of 75 – including Tracey Emin and David Adjaye. It is also self-funded, a status that is very unusual in the UK, and one that means the institution relies heavily on a devoted membership; the success of its annual Summer Exhibition; and the popularity of blockbuster temporary shows such as Manet: Portraying Life in 2013. The brand-new Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries will open with a showcase of British artist Tacita Dean’s LANDSCAPE, and in September the spotlight will turn to the Italian architect Renzo Piano. “These exhibitions are an indication of the types and style of exhibition that we would like to do – contemporary, work by RAs, and architecture,” says Saumarez Smith.

The Royal Academy Collection Gallery, Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, Photo: Rory Mulvey

Temporary shows may dominate the headlines, but it is the RA’s schools that set it apart. Since 1769 the institution has offered free, expert-led programmes, helping to establish the careers of artists ranging from the Romantic painter JMW Turner to contemporary artist artist Eddie Peake. The redevelopment sees the new Weston Bridge cut through the site displaying the work of students past and present. “Burlington Gardens was built to be the headquarters of the University of London, so it has an educational ethos built into it, and I like to think we’ve respected that by keeping teaching, lecturing, discussion and debate at its heart,” says Saumarez Smith.

At the centre of this project is an attempt to “marry up an old building with new purposes,” explains Saumarez Smith. David Chipperfield, who is perhaps most famous for his careful restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin, stood out as the obvious candidate. “I was, from the beginning, very sympathetic to the fact that Chipperfield as a designer is very sensitive both to the original character and use of the building,” Saumarez Smith says. “He’s worked very closely with the conservation architect Julian Harrap, who collaborated with him in Berlin, and my view is that some of the conservation philosophy, the respect of the original, has been carried over from there.”

Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, 2018, Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, Photo: Cat Garcia

Saumarez Smith acknowledges that merging the site’s two main buildings will affect the way visitors experience the RA. “I would think of it in terms of Burlington House being opposite Fortnum & Masons, while opposite Burlington Gardens is Abercrombie & Fitch, he says. “They have different characters, and I think that will be evident in the way they are used.” But ultimately, he hopes that uniting these spaces will allow the RA to be seen as was originally intended. “I want it to be viewed not as a museum, but as an academy. And what is distinct about an academy is it’s not just about the display of works of art, it’s about art practice as a currency. I hope that will enable it to thrive for another 250 years.”

The new Royal Academy of Arts is now open to the public. BNY Mellon is the Anniversary Partner of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Tacita Dean: LANDSCAPE is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, from May 19, 2018 through August 12 2018.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's