Artists say RA suits don't suit their palates

By Louise Jury,Media Correspondent
Saturday 14 December 2013 05:04

Artists are challenging the suits for the soul of the Royal Academy, the distinguished home of the Summer Exhibition in Piccadilly where crowds queue through the night for a view of important shows.

The imminent departure of David Gordon, a former chief executive of The Economist brought in to save the Academy from financial ruin six years ago, has prompted a fierce internal debate on its role in the artistic life of the nation.

At stake, the artists believe, is the question of whether the Academy is run in accordance with their own artistic ideals.

It was founded 234 years ago and is run by and for artists, sculptors and architects who are elected to become Royal Academicians (RAs). Today's RAs include David Hockney, Norman Foster, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake.

Until the past quarter of a century or so, its work had been relatively straightforward, with an exhibitions programme originally consisting of a winter exhibition as well as the Summer Exhibition, with financial support for students at the Royal Academy's own post-graduate school.

The role of the secretary, the job David Gordon vacates next month at the age of 60, was to fulfil the wishes of the Academicians, as decided by the ruling council, made up of RAs.

But there have been strong rumours that Mr Gordon's efforts to modernise the workings of the institution have brought him into conflict with Professor Phillip King, its president, and with other RAs who believe that the staff are wielding more power than the artists in an organisation that has grown into a £20m-a-year business.

One RA said: "I think David saw his role as being chief executive, but the Royal Academy is a bit more complicated than that. It's the artists who are the ultimate arbiters."

Professor King has asked the members to play a more important role in its work, and circulated an internal discussion paper arguing against changes.

"During the past 100 years, we (the Academicians) have adopted a more passive role by delegating the running of a now very complex organisation to a very competent and professional staff," he said.

But the 100 Academicians represented "a hidden treasure that needs to be brought into play to generate new streams of income and encourage an interest in the Academy other than through exhibitions".

He said there was "no battle of the Suits versus the T-shirts", but did not deny there were differences between administrators and artists.

In a clear marker of who is in charge, the advertisement for Mr Gordon's replacement uses the existing, old-fashioned job title of "secretary" and describes it as a "general management role accountable to the President and Council".

But the scale of the operation certainly requires an astute business brain. Exhibitions such as the blockbuster Monet or the survey of Paris from 1900 to 1968 are world-class shows requiring substantial sponsorship support. The Academy is also about to embark on a £50m project to take over the nearby Museum of Mankind building to acquire more space for exhibitions and education programmes and better facilities.

David Gordon said some Academicians were worried at the scale of the operation and alarmed at the sums of money required to fund it. The organisation, which has a staff of 200, receives no government funding. "It is true that there is a current among some of the Academicians who don't quite understand why the institution has become as big and complicated as it has," he said. "Perhaps the staff haven't done as good a job as we should have done of explaining how we now operate.

"I think some of the artists who have known the Academy a long time would like to go back to a time when we did less and were a less risky operation.

"But there isn't another game. We have the finest exhibition galleries in Europe. What do you do with exhibition galleries? You put on exhibitions.

"But the scale of the expectations on the Academy set by the public is very high. We're in competition with world-class institutions like the Tate."

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