A club of churlish, childish old men

You may laugh at the goings on, but in many ways the Royal Academy Council resembles the Court of President Blair
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The Independent Online

In an exquisite drawing room in a gorgeous Grade One listed building right on Piccadilly, there will be mutterings of self-satisfied contentment from a group of elderly men. They've managed to elect a new President and their arcane little club will be functioning as normal - in much the same way as it has done for the last 250 years. Using the time-honoured ritual of placing black balls in an antique wooden box, the Royal Academy's members elected a new president earlier this week, the distinguished architect, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw.

Why the man responsible for such modern success stories as the Eden Project and the Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo, and who has no shortage of large and prestigious building projects around the world, would want to take the helm of the troubled ship that is the Royal Academy is anyone's guess. I suspect it all boils down to giant ego, something that all successful architects, from Sir Richard Rodgers to Terry Farrell to Rem Koolhaas, have in abundance. But the Royal Academy's members have an unparalleled track record when it comes to behaving churlishly, childishly and just plain stupidly. They will be the supreme challenge for the likeable Sir Nicholas, and he will probably look back on his battles with planning authorities and obstructive clients with affection after a couple of minutes in his new job.

For all Sir Nicholas's stated aim of "bringing it into the 21st century", his stated mantra of "evolution not revolution" already implies that he accepts that huge problems lie ahead. He replaces the previous President, Phillip King, who retired after 30 academicians had written a letter listing his "weaknesses" and who had made a rambling and incoherent speech at their annual dinner last July. Only last week, another high-profile head rolled when Lawton Fitt, the organisation's secretary (ie chief executive) resigned after two years in the job. The previous incumbent, David Gordon (a knowledgeable art collector and formerly chief executive of The Economist and ITN) also resigned after six years' mental torture, and now runs a museum in America.

Ms Fitt (a former partner at Goldman Sachs) obviously found the cut and thrust of life at RA headquarters intolerable, which is saying something considering her success in the male-dominated world of banking. She is also a trustee of several arts organisations, including the extremely important PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York. But Miss Fitt had met two immoveable forces; the implacable opposition of the members to any attempt to modernise the place and make it function efficiently (as befits an organisation with an annual budget of £23m) and a lack of rapport with the most feared man on the payroll, Norman Rosenthal.

Mr Rosenthal is the Exhibitions Secretary, and has just had his contract renewed for another five years. Hugely successful, his idea of his own self-importance is extraordinary. Sure he's had a good run of shows, with smash hits like Sensation in 1997, the Aztecs last year and Monet, back in 1999. The Academy attracts over a million visitors a year and is one of the top ten attractions for paying visitors in London. Many of course attend the crowded hotch-potch that is the annual Summer Exhibition, curated by Academicians, rather than Mr Rosenthal, where interesting work by the younger members like Gary Hume is totally obliterated in a sea of the second-rate by Academy stalwarts like Anthony Green.

There's no denying Norman has a huge talent, but his exhibitions are expensive and the Academy has been reduced to writing begging letters to it's 85,000 members in order to drum up funds to show Turks - A Journey of a Thousand Years, from the end of January 2005. In the meantime Norman dressed up as a blue newt in the Alternative Miss World contest the other week, to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Lawton Fitt, the first woman to be appointed Secretary since the Academy was founded, sought to restrain Mr Rosenthal and managed to push through a plan to appoint a Director of Exhibitions to work alongside him. She also managed to turn an operating loss into a profit. But the finances of the Royal Academy and the high-handed way in which members operate have allowed some extraordinarily convoluted accountancy to go on. Eight years ago the Bursar, Trevor Clark, was jailed for five years for stealing £400,000 over a number of years. Only this year, the Head of the Royal Academy's School had to stand down when it was revealed he operated an unauthorised bank account through which £80,000 of the Academy's funds had passed without anyone knowing. An investigation is still under way.

You could say that the Academy is perfectly entitled to run itself in whatever way it sees fit, because it seeks no public funds to operate. But I resent the way it purports to represent all that is best about the British art scene today. The premises are magnificent, but the recent purchase of the former Museum of Mankind around the corner has been an opportunity fudged. Simply using the building as a party venue and for a series of inconsequential photographic exhibitions, the Royal Academy has not shown any vision in developing this space. Then there's the thorny question of the membership itself; it's full of M people - male, middle aged and mediocre.

There are 108 Academicians including Senior Members, but only 17 are female. Of the 31 Honorary Members, a distinguished list of international artists and architects, there are no women whatsoever! If the Academy seeks to include the very best artists and architects working in Britain today, then where are the names of Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood, Nicola Hicks, Bridget Riley, Gillian Wearing, Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker, the Wilson sisters and Zaha Hadid - just the first ten I can think of - all of whom have had major international shows of their work?

To run a place visited by a million people and with assets worth billions, Grimshaw got the job with 41 votes from the 78 members who turned up. Allen Jones was next with 32. There has never been a woman on the shortlist. Mr Grimshaw will now spend just three days a week trying to sort out the mess, starting with the search for a new Secretary, a job as unappealing as that of Tory Party leader. I can already hear the in-house PR machine cranking into gear to persuade sponsors and the public that the RA is relevant to the 21st century and I await the results of a Governance Review belatedly announced last week with interest.

You may laugh at the goings on down at Burlington House, but in many ways the Academy Council closely resembles the Court of President Blair, where the inner circle spend their time in panelled committee rooms and sumptuous surroundings, bickering about what Mr Blunkett may or may not have said about them to his biographer, when they should be getting on with the jobs that we, the tax-payers are paying them to do.

David Gordon called the Academy "a gentleman's club stuck in the 18th century", but surely, with it's weird and wonderful rules, preponderance of alpha males, refusal to adapt to modern straightforward ways of operating, it is totally in tune with how our government likes to do business. Perhaps Mr Blunkett should apply for the vacant post of Secretary - I'm sure he could give Mr Rosenthal a run for his money, and he is, if nothing else, the sex that cuts the mustard down at Burlington House.