The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) was founded in 1754 by William Shipley, an art master known less as an artist than a cultivateur modeste, whose idea it was to make Britain a centre for intellectual advancements in the arts and sciences. Housed in a grand Georgian house just off the Strand, its Great Room is graced with James Barry's cycle of history paintings, The Progress of Human Culture. Members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, Charles Dickens, Guglielmo Marconi.
I became a fellow some 15 years ago. Despite its establishment credentials, the RSA was a radical body that "sought to challenge the status quo and change the world, removing barriers to social progress". The founders spoke not only of the need to "embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art... and extend our commerce, but of the need to alleviate poverty and secure full employment. As a passionately political arts professional I soon found the worthy talks had little relevance to me. I came for the restaurant, handy for the Coliseum and theatres.
That changed in 2006 when Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair, became chief executive. Big change for the RSA: there's now a mission statement, a model of New Labour mantras – "The RSA combines thought leadership with social innovation to further human progress", multi-disciplinary cutting-edge challenges, discourse and debate. The 27,000 fellows are all "achievers and influencers". I was troubled to learn that the RSA was sponsoring an academy school, but overlooked it since the RSA was now abuzz with an enticing programme of talks to feed mind and body.
Recently I received an RSA email with the headline, "Fed up with the Turner Prize? Hungry for honest contemporary art?" Fellows were invited "to see art that is well produced ... art for the discriminating to see and appreciate ... not vainglorious" at a "private viewing" of the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize, "set up to encourage creative representational painting and to promote draughtsmanship". It ended: "The prize is unique ... as it is not restricted to a specific media [sic] ... or genre."
How dare the RSA send out this partisan message? It should initiate debates about contemporary art, but it is unacceptable for it to make value judgments on fellows' behalf, to proclaim what constitutes good art. Discussion is one thing, controversy and opinion another, and I'd have understood if this had come from the Stuckists or Brian Sewell; but instead of initiating a debate, the RSA made a unilateral decision on what constitutes art that is "alive and thriving, sensible and progressive".
Susan Loppert is an arts consultant. A version of this article appears in 'Arts Industry' magazineReuse content