Royal Academy

Royal Academy
   Founded in 1768 as a society of artists, the Royal Academy (RA) is the oldest visual arts institution in Britain. It sought to raise the status of the artist through the provision of professional training, providing grants for impoverished artists and their families and exhibitions of work by living artists. Although in the eighteenth century there were other societies, the RA enjoyed royal patronage which conferred status and authority, enabling the RA to establish itself as the standard-bearing institution for the practice and teaching of art.
   The RA has played an important role in improving the professional conditions for artists historically by providing a system for professional recognition. However, as the arbiter of taste the RA has been criticized by artists and professionals whose own interests do not correspond with its own. In particular, a tendency to conservatism has meant that the RA has often excluded, or publicly attacked, innovative artists, and this reactionary image has damaged its reputation.
   When the RA was founded there were few opportunities for artists to exhibit, and therefore sell, their work, and the RA Schools was the first art school in Britain. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century the establishment of municipal arts schools, growing internationalism in art and increased professional and commercial opportunities for artists contributed to the erosion of the importance of the RA and a widening gap between the work exhibited at the RA and the work which is considered to be historically significant. During the Presidency of W.T.Monnington (1966–76), the RA became more sympathetic to progress and its influence and reputation, particularly for its world-famous programme of ‘block-buster’ loan exhibitions, was partly restored.
   The RA comprises eighty members (or Academicians), all of whom are artists or architects. It is governed by an elected President and a Council on which Members serve in turn. There are two main kinds of membership: associated (ARA), and full (RA). Membership is divided into five categories: painting, sculpture, draughtsmanship, architecture and engraving. Each new Academician is required by the Instrument of Foundation to provide ‘a Picture, Bas-relief, or other specimen of his abilities’; these are known as ‘Diploma Works’. Academicians such as John Bellany, Peter Blake, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, David Hockney, Sir Richard Rogers and John Ward may not be fashionable artists by the time of their appointment (normally at an advanced stage of their careers), but are not usually reactionary. For example, R.B. Kitaj’s work includes painting, drawing and screenprinting. Kitaj (1932–) has remained committed to drawing from life and the human figure is the basis of his work. Phillip King (1934–) was appointed Professor of Sculpture at the RA Schools in 1990. Rosebud (1962, MoMA, New York) combines new materials such as plastics and fibreglass with colourful, abstract forms.
   Professorial chairs are appointed from the members to teach in the RA Schools, under the direction of the Keeper. Teaching includes drawing from life, draughtsmanship, carving, engraving, lithography and graphic arts.
   The RA Magazine, which profiles the RA’s exhibitions and the work of Academicians, is one of the highest circulation art periodicals in Britain. The Library was founded to support the teaching of the Schools and is the oldest fine art library in Britain. The RA also administers over sixty trust and award funds for students, artists and their families. The RA does not receive public funds (although during the 1970s it applied unsuccessfully to the Arts Council for revenue support) and raises its own income through trading activities, donations, sponsorship, the Friends organization, corporate membership and exhibition receipts. 1977 saw the launch of the Friends, entitling free entry to exhibitions on payment of a subscription. By 1980 there were over 25,000 Friends, and this success has encouraged other arts institutions to follow suit. The annual Summer Exhibition began in 1769. It represents an opportunity for Academicians to sell their work. Around ten times as many entries are received as selected. An open competition, the Exhibition allows members to submit six works and non-members three. Works are selected by a Hanging Committee. Many other open competitions, for example at the Whitechapel Gallery, have been established and are a testament to the importance of this model of exhibition for revealing new talent. Loan exhibitions began in 1870, when they provided an important opportunity to see work, as public and municipal galleries were rare and art publishing was still in its infancy. The Loan Exhibitions Advisory Committee, consisting of historians and curators, was established during the late 1950s to assist with the exhibitions programme, functioning in a similar way to the Art Advisory Panel of the Arts Council.
   There are around six loan exhibitions per annum. Many are originated, although shows often tour to other venues within Britain or abroad, and many are organized in collaboration with other institutions. Exhibitions range from The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400 (1987) to Cézanne: the Early Years 1859-1872 (1988). Often accompanied by weighty catalogues, these exhibitions provide an opportunity for publishing new scholarship.
   Norman Rosenthal was appointed Exhibitions Secretary in 1977, and under his supervision the loan exhibitions have re-established the RA as an important force in contemporary art. With Nicholas Serota and Christos Joachimides, he curated Post Impressionism: A New Spirit in Painting in 1979. The exhibition’s success in predicting the trends of the next decade focused attention once more on the RA’s ability to shape opinion about contemporary art.
   Major survey shows of international art have included German Art in the 20th Century (1985) and American Art in the Twentieth Century (1993). Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (1997) characterized the RA’s exhibitions in its attempt to provide a definitive survey of a period, its high media profile and box office success. By exhibiting the work of artists who had in the preceding decade been presented as controversial, the RA revealed its continuing ability to institutionalize the innovative.
   See also: painting
   Further reading
    Hutchison, S.C. (1986) The History of the Royal Academy 1768-1986, London: Robert Royce.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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