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Architect to lead the Royal Academy: Dalya Alberge finds the arts world united in its praise for the RA's choice as new president

THE Royal Academy of Arts, one of the world's leading artistic institutions, has a new president - Sir Philip Dowson, the architect and winner of the 1981 Gold Medal for Architecture.

He becomes the RA's 23rd president, 225 years after Sir Joshua Reynolds, following initial hesitation, was appointed the first holder of the post.

The appointment was widely welcomed in the arts world. Piers Rodgers, secretary of the Academy, said: 'Sir Philip is highly intelligent, sensitive and has an incisive mind. He has a broad interest in the arts and a quiet manner, but passionate conviction.'

The selection was made by Royal Academicians, some 75 painters, sculptors and architects, who descended on Burlington House yesterday and, in the manner of their predecessors, voted in a secret ballot. After obtaining the approval of the Sovereign, they watched the outgoing president, Sir Roger de Grey, hand over the gold medal of office.

At 69, Sir Philip is the right age - presidents of the academy have to retire at 75. But, it is his background as an architect, and his wide interest in the arts and museum world, that have made him a popular choice. He is chairman of the RA's working group preparing the bid for the Museum of Mankind to transform it into a Museum of Architecture.

As an architect, the fifth to hold the presidency, and a senior partner of Arup Associates, Sir Philip has been described as a modernist 'up to a point'. In the Eighties he produced the controversial plan for Paternoster Square. However, the distinguished architect, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, whose works include the Kennedy memorial at Runnymede, has written: 'All his work has an element of classicism in its pure geometry and in the charm that it holds for the layman so easily overwhelmed by bigness, hostility of material, and inelegance'.

Alan Balfour, chairman of the Architectural Association, commented: 'It is an excellent choice. Few have more passion for culture and breadth of knowledge across the arts.'

Sir Philip follows in a line that includes Benjamin West and Sir Alfred Munnings, who had to stand down after making disparaging remarks about Matisse and Henry Moore. Sir Roger is a difficult act to follow. Although the presidential term is for one year, it can be extended - Sir Roger served nine terms.

Under Sir Roger's presidency, the RA's previously rather stuffy image was transformed by hugely popular, blockbuster exhibitions that appealed to the general public and the academic. Among them were the Monet show, which attracted a record 658,000 visitors in 1990; the Great Age of British Watercolours, which drew more than 200,000 earlier this year; and the Great Age of Chivalry, seen by 349,750 in 1987-88.

That such shows were staged without a penny of government support make the RA's achievements all the more impressive. Exhibitions are staged with corporate sponsorship; refurbishments to the building have been made - notably the pounds 10.4m Sackler galleries, one of London's most impressive display spaces; and, under Sir Roger's presidency, the RA pioneered the idea of advance tickets for shows.

Leading figures in the art world were unanimous in praising both men yesterday. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, the sculptor and academician, said: 'Sir Philip will be very good . . . If you can improve on Sir Roger's legacy, it'll make him into a wonderful president.'

Graham Greene, chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission, said: 'I couldn't imagine a better appointment. Although Sir Roger is a hard act to follow, Sir Philip has got all the charm to lead that sort of institution in this day and age.'

Leading article, page 17

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