Taken by surprise
Felicity Owen on the Royal Academy's plans for expansion The Royal Academy in Burlington House has long been regarded as a pre- eminent showplace and crucible of British art while also attracting many outstanding exhibitions to London's finest rooms. The prospect of lottery money has re-activated an old plan to absorb the adjoining build- ing, 6 Burlington Gardens which the Museum of Mankind is due to vacate in 1998.
The architect president, Sir Philip Dow- son, would have us remember that, under the 1768 Instrument of Foundation, the Academy's brief includes the phrase to promote the Arts of Design'. Architects well capable of punching above their weight, forming about a fifth of the gov- erning membership of 100, see a great opportunity to create a new architectural centre as part of an enlarged headquarters for both art and architecture. This enter- prise at the best address in the capital, unique in being privately funded and free of government control, would arrive on the scene when Britain can claim to lead the world in these two spheres.
Currently Burlington House is bursting at the seams, its 200 or so employees unit- ed in their demand for more space. The acquisition of the next door building would allow for new sculpture studios for the Schools, a 400-seat lecture theatre and rooms for small displays and seminars as well as for the proposed architectural cen- tre. The two houses would fit together with uncanny ease according to a feasibility study conducted two years ago by Sir Michael Hopkins BA.
Under the enthusiastic leadership of their brother brush, the late Sir Roger de Grey, artists happily accepted changes in Academy procedures without worrying too much about the small print. More recently, shocked by alleged embezzlement in the bursary and lack of consultation over a plan for an open discussion on ways to attract fresh (and presumably more experi- mental) talent to their Summer Exhibition, some artists have been enraged by the speed with which a grandiose plan to expand at unknown cost has progressed. Another surprise has been the sudden arrival of a secretary-elect, David Gordon, freeing Piers Rodgers to concentrate on the Burlington Gardens project. Gordon, a trustee of the Tate Gallery, with experi- ence of running the Economist and ITN, will have to satisfy a powerful president and control the ambitions of the Acade- my's leading so-called servants, while find- ing time for members who may have another shock when faced with last year's overdue accounts.
With annual running costs of over £4 million, money is at the root of most of the unease. Thanks to royal patronage initiat- ed by George III, the Academy enjoys a 999-year lease of Burlington House at a peppercorn rent. While the Royal Acade- my trust has raised a £10 million endow- ment and the Friends, nearly 75,000 strong, provide vital support, the exhibition pro- gramme is lucky to break even despite sponsorship and attendances of some 650,000 at blockbusters such as the Monet. Norman Rosenthal, dubbed nightmare or national treasure according to mood, can- not always triumph with the more risky ventures such as the recent Africa exhibi- tion, a £2 million investment, that unex- pectedly became a winner when bids came in to take it on to Berlin and New York. The Summer Exhibition remains the sole consistent profit-maker despite its annual mauling from the critics. When it comes to the Architecture Room, they are right to deplore the crowded fourth-form display of poorly labelled models and designs. This is no advertisement for the president's intended exhibitions of contemporary architecture and it will need more than vir- tual reality and other technical innovations if the programme is to pull in the crowds. Piers Rodgers's paper, An Academy for the 21st Century, was recently presented to a general meeting attended by less than half the Academicians. Despite artist mem- bers being nettled by a quotation referring to architecture as the mother of the arts, most supinely accepted the premise that only through expansion can the Academy
retain its vitality; and the vote was almost unanimous in favour of applications being made for lottery money towards capital and running costs in respect of Burlington Gar- dens, which is Crown property, the present lease expiring in 2007. The project will also involve appeals, not least to Japanese ears, for matching millions and, as it seems likely that the Museum of Mankind's exit could be considerably delayed, senior artists feel they can only warn the younger generation of the danger of losing control as Academy fmances become hopelessly overstretched. The lack of armour against the cabal of seven architect knights, including such powerful operators as Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers who are used to the large scale spending of other people's money, is all too obvious.
There is a significant difference between the president with his belief that the Academy should serve all the arts (vide the Instrument of Foundation) and the painter, John Ward, who has tradition on his side when he insists that it should be run by artists for artists with special consid- eration for the young. Despite the fact that the presidency has become a full time job and, unlike architects, artists seldom retire or are pensioned to restore the balance of power, artist members need to unite behind a new leader to be voted in on Dowson's retirement from the presidency in 1999. It is smart talk that the Academy no longer signifies in an international art world where fashion makes the tills ring and the public galleries compete to show the latest nine-day wonder. Backed by gov- ernment funds the Tate can afford to be a broad church but the way for the Academy to regain its prestige must be to re-estab- lish itself as the bastion of art in the figura- tive tradition.
The process has already begun with the new keeper, Leonard McComb, bringing basic training back to the Schools. As the only three-year post-graduate course, its annual intake of 20 should produce a flow of Academy-oriented artists; and other col- leges based on sound principles might be encouraged to co-operate, directing their best students towards the Academy. The result might only be more entrants for the Summer Exhibition but, to mutual advan- tage, the Academy could form a graduate club that would support new generations who, eschewing Goldsmith's College flying coach to fame, need time to develop.
There is also a pressing need to strength- en the membership, the archaic voting sys- tem leading sometimes to the election of Buggins or of some creature of fashion. Better candidates are lost to commercial galleries who look after their interests internationally, rendering the Academy an unnecessary or embarrassing option. Even so, there are artists of stature likely to respond if the membership were increased by invitation — amongst them, Di Stefano, Inshaw, Lebrun, Leonard, Deanna Pether- bridge, Remfry, Sarah Raphael, Lucy Willis and Wonnacott and sculptors Lee Grand- jean and Glynn Williams. Sizeable contri- butions from these would enhance the Summer Exhibition. It is too valuable to aspiring artists and art aficionados from all over the country for it to succumb to a band of dated modernist architects. Paul Koralek showed his colours in this year's RA Illustrated by suggesting a Bauhaus type manifesto. There would be a disas- trous falling off of the 150,000 faithful, many of them buyers, if this famous exhibi- tion became just another outlet for modern tat.
One way or another the coming trend seems bound to give priority to an educa- tional programme that will attract sponsor- ship; at the same time a primary object of Academy policy will be to promote a better understanding of architecture by means of exhibitions and discussion at all levels.