RA opens £56m ‘golden age’

The Royal Academy is marking its 250thanniversary with the opening of a £56m second building. Simon Tait reports

Royal Academy President Christopher le Brun has declared that the scheme that links the RA’s familiar home, Burlington House, with the refurbished and recast Burlington Gardens building behind heralds “a golden age” for the institution, and so it may prove to be.

Main image, the RA's new Burlington Gardens entrance

The scheme has taken more than two decades to come to fruition, with two abortive masterplans preceding this successful one, but it will open one of the world’s most famous private cultural enterprises properly to the public for the first time. Its space is increased by 70% in the plan devised by Sir David Chipperfield.

Chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith estimates that the one million that habitually come to see the RA’s blockbuster exhibitions each year will be added to by another half million to see the new – free – displays.

The Royal Academy https://www.royalacademy.org.uk was founded in 1768 by artists and architects to offer a standard of excellence through its 80 members and their summer exhibition, the income from which would finance an art school for hand-picked students, for whom there is still no fee. It moved to the 18thcentury neo-classical Burlington House in Piccadilly in 1854. 

Behind it, the Grade II* listed 6 Burlington Gardens, built in the 1860s, was once the headquarters for the University of London, later the British Museum’s Museum of Mankind. It was finally acquired by the RA in 2001, but the desire for it was born years earlier. Schemes by Sir Michael Hopkins and Sir Colin St John Wilson were devised and abandoned when they could not meet the complex requirements of lining the two buildings up, and fundraising could not meet the soaring costs.


The Wohl entrance hall, credit Simon Menges

The Chipperfield plan - commissioned before Sir David was the celebrity architect he became after the opening his Neues Museum in Berlin, Turner Contemporary in Margate and Barbara Hepworth Museum in Wakefield -  was an ingenious solution, less expensive, which saw a thread running through the spines of both buildings, freeing up the architecture. The funding problem began to resolve when the Heritage Lottery Fund came to rescue with a grant of £12.7m which set the ball rolling and other donors came forward. The full £56m amount has now been realised.

The Link, with some of the plaster casts traditionally used by students

The link is a bridge connecting the two buildings, with an undercroft passage through the Royal Academy Schools containing an exhibitions pace for the students. For the first time, the schools will be given a public face, with the passage itself acting as a small museum.

The  rearrangement also means the RA can have a lecture theatre more, named after former president Benjamin West, for use by  the schools and for public events and paid for by patrons "buying" each of the 250 seats. The new academy building has a restaurant/bar in the restored and grand former Senate Rooms, and even the latest technology public lavatories have been installed in the conserved 19th century architecture. There are more refreshment points either side of a new entrance.


 The Doorman Senate Rooms restaurant

The RA has a unique collection of art by academicians, and for the first time some of it can be displayed in a dedicated gallery, including the extraordinary copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper by James Thornhill (the artist of Greenwich’s Painted Hall) and Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo bequeathed to the RA in 1830 and the only example of Michaelengo’s work in London. There is also work by RAs including Turner, Constable, Reynolds and Lawrence that could not otherwise have been seen.

The Royal Academy Collection Gallery, with the Lawrence copy of Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Tondo

Architecture has always been a major part of the RA’s business, and for the first time there is an architecture studio with both exhibition space and creative areas. There are also new temporary exhibitions galleries – Tacita Dean’s Landscapesis the inaugural show in one. In another Royal Academicians will be invited to create site specific installations, and Tips for a Good Lifeby Bob and Roberta Smith is the first.

This weekend the opening is to be celebrated with an “art party” with free workshops, tours, displays, late-night performances and DJs.

It is the most dramatic change for the Royal Academy in its 250 years. It has no public subsidy and is classified a Royal Peculiar, under the auspices of the monarch as it has been since George III granted its charter in the 1760s. When a new president is elected by the RAs, the choice has to have the sovereign’s blessing before it is ratified.

The RA has depended heavily on the success of its temporary exhibitions to survive, and there have been times when its future was in doubt after risks that did not come off. It was one of the first to establish a friends’ membership scheme, but until now there has been no permanent offer for visitors.

“Royal Academicians are at the heart of everything we do” Christopher le Brun said. “They govern the academy and, uniquely in the modern world for an organisation of this scale and significance, are responsible for its direction. British visual art and architecture has achieved outstanding international success in recent decades.

“The experience of the last few years would suggest a golden age for the Royal Academy. Ultimately it will be for the public to judge, but I am confident they are about to experience a new, open and re-invigorated  academy that matches our vision.”

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