Royal Academy goes out on a limb to attract young audience

Britain's oldest art institution is in the black and embracing change,says David Lister
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The Independent Online
TODAY is not only the start of the season for Middle England's painters. It is also the start of a cultural rehabilitation for Britain's oldest art institution.

When the Royal Academy opens its doors in Picadilly for the first private view of the annual Summer Show, Sir Philip Dowson, the president, and David Gordon, the secretary, will be able to greet friends and sponsors, press and critics with beaming smiles and promises of a cutting-edge future.

The institution is moving back into the black after mounting debts. Craigie Aitchison, the artist who resigned as an RA in high dudgeon last year, has come back to the fold. "Sensation", the exhibition of radical young British artists, attracted huge crowds. The latest elections to the academy show a spirited attempt to embrace the new. One new RA, David Mach, predicts "raunchy" times ahead.

Six months is evidently a long time in art. Last autumn, the Royal Academy was in crisis: the culmination of 12 months during which its bursar had been sent to prison for embezzlement of pounds 400,000 as the deficit climbed to pounds 3m. Four academicians resigned over "Sensation" and there was not exactly a rush to take their place.

Rachel Whiteread, who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, was elected to the academy, but turned it down. Damien Hirst added that he would never join such a "pompous and boring" organisation. There were pickets outside the "Sensation" exhibition in protest over a depiction on the walls of Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderer.

Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions organiser, was censured by a meeting of the Academicians. He said publicly he doubted that one of the resignees, John Ward, would be judged "a great artist". Mr Ward said: "I want his balls. I shall go on campaigning to get him sacked." There were even reports of a fist fight between two of the Academy's most senior officials.

Imprisonment, fisticuffs and a threatened castration: it was not what Sir Joshua Reynolds had in mind 230 years ago when he established the art world's most senior body.

Last year's crisis at one stage looked like destroying the relatively new regime under Sir Philip Dowson, the architect, and David Gordon, the former ITN chief executive. The fault was not entirely theirs. Competition for the declining pot of sponsorship cash has grown ever more intense.

With no permanent collection of its own to lend, the Academy needs all Mr Rosenthal's celebrated network of contacts to secure the best exhibitions.

The academy's membership is indeed ageing and many of the 80- strong membership could not understand why the Academy was hosting an exhibition of young Turks brought in from the Saatchi collection instead of honouring its own.

The annual report shows that last year the Academy cut its accumulated deficit to pounds 1.8m, returning an unexpected operating surplus of pounds 175,000. Sir Philip adds that plans for the future included a pounds 100,000 feasibility study into taking over the nearby vacated Museum of Mankind, and turning it into an educational centre.

The election of David Mach, 42, a controversial sculptor responsible for a pounds 760,000 locomotive made of house bricks, is a clear signal from the academy that it wants to embrace change, as do the elections of two other artists in their forties, Richard Deacon, a sculptor, and Stephen Farthing, the head of the Ruskin School of Drawing, at Oxford.

Mr Mach says: "For me, it's got to get rid of its conservative reputation. If we can chip away at that it's going to be quite a raunchy place. I don't see why it has to be stuffy. They have to go for young people. You have to get younger sooner or later. It's obvious because the rest of them are going to die."

That is logic of a sort. The academy's quest for youth, blockbusters and sharper business acumen also has a sort of logic to it. But it remains a short-term solution. The academy, which makes no pronouncements about the state of art, and whose own school has lost its pre-eminent place in art education, has yet to find a role and purpose in today's mercurial art world - a world which does not respect authority and tradition and, as Damien Hirst's remarks showed, does not want to be a member of an exclusive club with no power and little authority.

The present regime has not yet made a statement of changing philosophy to accompany the improving balance sheets. pounds 1m price tag on Gormley work A centrepiece of the Summer Exhibition will be a sculpture by Antony Gormley, who has valued it at pounds 1m, writes David Lister. Critical Mass comprises 60 lifesize cast-iron figures each weighing a tonne. The body casts are in the centre and around the outsides of the courtyard of the Royal Academy. They were moulded from Gormley's body in 12 distinct positions. Fourteen of the c asts are suspended from the facade of Burlington House and neighbouring buildings. Hitherto the highest price commanded at auction by the former Turner Prize winner is pounds 23,000. He sold maquettes of his Angel of the North for pounds 145,000 at the London Art Fair in January.

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