Leading Article: Artistic, unsubsidised, and successful

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THE Royal Academy, whose new president was elected yesterday, is unique among major artistic institutions in several ways. It receives no regular subsidy from public funds, either from national or local government. All its main decisions, not least those about exhibition policy, are taken by artists, more specifically, its 75-odd Royal Academicians. And in the past 20 years it has transformed its reputation as a bastion of anti-modernist prejudice into one identified with the mainstream of contemporary art. In sum, its capacity for survival is closely linked to a talent for self- renewal.

To suggest that the RA exists wholly without public support would be misleading. Over the past decade it has received about pounds 500,000 from the Government towards capital expenditure on its substantial Crown property off Piccadilly. For that it pays only a peppercorn rent, a form of subsidy without which its existence would be more fragile. It also benefits, like national galleries, from a government indemnity that absolves it from insuring loan exhibitions.

Those important factors apart, it survives by its own exertions. One important source of revenue is its Friends organisation, third largest of its type in the world after those of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It also makes a tidy profit from its restaurant and shop, which commissions items also sold under licence in other outlets.

The Royal Academy's exhibitions are a crucial source of prestige and stimulating controversy, but they rarely make a profit. The Monet exhibition of 1991, which brought in 650,000 visitors, was an exception. They depend for their viability on business sponsorship - essentially, the underwriting of losses up to an agreed maximum - to the tune of pounds 1m to pounds 2m a year.

The Royal Academy's president is crucial both in welding together a disparate group of artists and in shaping the public's image of the institution. The newly elected president, Sir Philip Dowson, senior architect in the widely admired firm of Ove Arup, follows two very successful predecessors, the painter Sir Roger de Grey and his predecessor, the architect Sir Hugh Casson. If his touch proves to be as sure, the continued survival of this remarkable institution should not be in doubt.