TAITMAIL How Le Brun made the RA relevant again

For years, decades, the Royal Academy was an anachronism that many thought should never have been allowed to reach its 250thbirthday, as it did last year. In the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s artists would turn down election, not wanting to be associated with such a fossil, its standing as a slavish part of the establishment or the out-moded professional practices of its Victorian membership. 

Some still haven’t forgiven the speech by a former president who castigated Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse for having "corrupted" art, and that was in 1949.
The Royal Academy of Arts was based on European institutions set up by elite artists to train precocious youngsters in their approved methods, but they’re all gone now. Just the RA stands alone.

Image shows Christopher Le Brun opening the Burlington Gardens extension in May 2018

Yet something has happened. From being a national embarrassment the RA has become an international asset, somewhere visitors want to go without finding out first what’s on. It's not the physical development alone, the long striven for annexation of the former Museum of Mankind behind, which opened last year in the RA’s sestercentennial, or the exhibitions which have been interesting if not blockbusting, or the improved catering, or the better toilets. There’s a buzz that belies its once crusty old perception.  

And if anyone is responsible for it, it is the man who has this week announced he is standing down to spend more time with his easel, a year before he needs to: the President, Christopher Le Brun.

He had more than able assistants in the former Secretary, Charles Saumarez Smith (who left with a knighthood at the end of last year and has been replaced by Axel Rüger from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum) and the Keeper of the RA, effectively Le Brun’s deputy, Rebecca Salter – who might well succeed him and become the first female PRA. Born in an era before subsidy, the RA is still ferociously and occasionally dangerously independent, and an exemplar to other arts organisations struggling in the post-subsidy age.

The place now has a business profile that is taking the pressure off the exhibitions director to bring the cash in, so that it can concentrate more on being as much an educational institute as a suite of large galleries. 

It was Le Brun who sweet-talked the intransigent elements of the 80-strong membership, who soothed the masterplan architect David Chipperfield when tempers were in danger of exploding, who (even before he became President, under the instruction of his predecessor Nick Grimshaw) persuaded the RA Schools that ploughing Chipperfield’s connecting link passage through their subterranean domain was a good thing. 

The Burlington Gardens scheme had become a sour joke in the art world. When the British Museum’s anthropology department moved out and the RA bought 6 Burlington Gardens in 2001, it seemed a matter of not very long before the expansion would be accomplished. But masterplans came and went, presidents dithered, business heads brought in to help to raise money raged at the impotent naivety of the members, artists lost interest. The architect Grimshaw brought a new realism as president, and in 2011 he handed over to Le Brun. 

Since then the anonymous building to the side of the RA which had been used for offices, the Keeper’s House, has been brought back to life as a money-earner, opening in 2013 with a new restaurant and cocktail bar, facilities for the Friends (a vital economic resource), and a Members’ room. Five years later came the £56m Burlington Gardens extension, and earlier this year Le Brun and Salter launched a £15m upgrade for the Schools.  And the Schools’ are his final legacy. Reynolds and his co-conspirators met in December 1768 to found the Academy, and in January 1769 were back to found the Schools. Later they launched the Summer Exhibition to raise money for them.

Hitherto leading a troglodyte existence, “a bit Upstairs Downstairs” as Salter, effectively the Schools’ elected principal, puts it, with the students kept in the basements out of sight of visitors in the main galleries, Chipperfield’s reconfiguration not only doubles the gallery space but takes access through the Schools, giving them a public face for the first time. In the old-fashioned way, there are no student fees, the last art school to be free, and each year there are 800 applicants for 17 places for the three-year post-grad training. Le Brun and Salter have put the Schools back at the heart, and the art world is loving it. Each year £20,000 has to be raised for each student. 

“Now the RA’s reputation is international and the success of British art has been extraordinary, to the extent that arguably London is up there with New York as a centre of art today” Le Brun told AI for a profile that will appear next month. “I think that was all envisaged when the King sat down with Reynolds, Chambers and the others. They were trying to get British art on the map, and what you needed for that was an Academy.” 





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