Royal Academy of Arts appeals for wealthy backers to help with £50m redesign as they 'won't be punitively taxed' under the Tories

The project will be finished for the RA's 250th anniversary in 2018

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The Royal Academy of Arts has announced a radical £50m redevelopment plan to put the Mayfair institution on a par with Tate Modern – and appealed for wealthy philanthropists to help fund it now they don’t have to worry about Labour’s mansion tax.

“There are a lot of people who now won’t be punitively taxed,” said Charles Saumarez-Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy. “I need one lead donor to give £5m.”

Mr Saumarez-Smith was speaking as he unveiled plans to double the size of the institution, which was formed in 1786 as a sanctuary for leading artists working in Britain.

A bridge will connect the RA’s Burlington House Piccadilly home, with its neoclassical façade facing Fortnum & Mason, to 6 Burlington Gardens, the former Museum of Mankind building it owns at its rear. The project will start next year and will be completed in time for the RA’s 250th anniversary in 2018.

Designed by the acclaimed architect Sir David Chipperfield, the extension will create more display space and allow many artworks to be brought out of storage. The two-acre site will add a lecture theatre with over 260 seats, a new Clore Learning Centre and new spaces for the RA Schools.

The biggest development in the history of the Academy since 1868 when the grand galleries were built, the project will place the RA on the same scale as the British Museum and is designed to encourage more casual visitors. “Previously we have tried to attract people to the exhibitions but not to attract cultural tourists to come to the Royal Academy of Arts itself,” said Mr Saumarez-Smith. “We will now have a grand cultural campus right in the heart of Mayfair.”

The project, which Mr Saumarez-Smith has been seeking to activate since 2007, will begin after years of delay. The buildings are separated by just 15m but two previous proposals to link them failed until Sir David produced the link bridge solution, creating a central route from Piccadilly to Mayfair.

The solution had to be approved by the RA’s 80 independent-minded Royal Academicians, whose membership includes Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin and the architect Dame Zaha Hadid.

Mr Saumarez-Smith said: “We presented the plan to the Academicians but it was without a sound system. The acoustics were very bad and I’m not convinced they all heard it. They all voted unanimously in favour.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has approved £12.7m for the project. The redevelopment has also attracted several millions of pounds from private individuals, trusts and foundations but is around £5m short of the £50m needed.

Beauty lies in its simplicity

In 2018, London’s august temple of the arts, and architecture, will become thronged with promenaders ambling, on a north-south axis, right through the Royal Academy’s estate. 

Apart from the concrete bridge, Sir David Chipperfield has completely resisted any possibility of a “wow” moment.

Indeed, the strength of the design is its tight, no-nonsense focus on three issues: significantly increasing the exhibition space; allowing the public to see what the RA’s arts students are up to; and to make sure that people realise that the somewhat constipated and forbidding two-level entrance to the Burlington Gardens buildings is anything but.

Jay Merrick