The New Royal Academy will make art more accessible for everyone
RA: Two little letters that have come to stand for a lot. For a visual artist, they mark one of the highest accolades available. For the general public, they stand for some of the most popular exhibitions ever staged.
For 250 years, the Royal Academy has been at the heart of British art, playing a role that has always been adapted for the times. Admittedly, it’s occasionally been a bit slow off the mark and has repeatedly battled with a reputation for being rather old-fashioned. Today, however, the RA has proved once again that it’s back at the forefront of art in the UK, but always with one eye on the weighty influence of the past.
Its impressive new space links the well-known front of the academy on Piccadilly to the building on Burlington Gardens behind it. The renovation was masterminded by the architect Sir David Chipperfield RA. Beautiful, elegant and light-filled, the new spaces are subtly impressive, remaining mindful of the need for continuity with the original building next door and for respecting the institution’s history.
One of the problems with the old RA (as we might call it) was that its dedication to temporary exhibitions inevitably eclipsed visitors’ understanding of the Royal Academy’s history and positioning. First and foremost, as the name implies, the Royal Academy is a place of learning, promoting the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of the visual arts and architecture.
The new space effectively highlights this raison d’etre in several important ways. For a start, it incorporates a large lecture theatre for hosting a new programme of talks and events. There is also a new permanent exhibition showcasing part of the academy’s impressive collection and telling the story of its foundation and early growth. As well as paintings by academicians such as Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, it also includes important learning materials amassed by the RA Schools, including plaster casts of classical works, an early reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and a marble tondo by Michelangelo.
Finally, Chipperfield’s design places the RA’s postgraduate fine art school at the centre of the institution, giving a tantalising glimpse into artists’ studios and providing a space for students to exhibit experimental new work in a context that is often unavailable to the general public.
The newly expanded campus places the Royal Academy squarely in the centre of art in London, tracing a compelling story of its lineage from 1768 to the cutting-edge contemporary art being produced by current students. Its dual entrances onto touristy Piccadilly and gallery-inhabited Burlington Gardens are symbolic of its impressive role bridging the art world and helping to make art more accessible for everyone.
Photo: James Harris / Simon Menges
The New Royal Academy opens on 19th May 2018. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.