Magazine article The Spectator

Struggle for Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Struggle for Power

Article excerpt

From time to time since late July, the story of the resignation of Professor Brendan Neiland from the Keepership of the Royal Academy, his 'secret' account and a 'missing' £80,000 has passed across the pages of the daily papers, leaving the world to assume what it will. The press release issued at the time of his resignation naturally refreshed reporters' memories of the case of the Academy accountant who, a few years before, had salted away some £500,000, and by inevitable association, with no subsequent public correction, either of scale or kind, forthcoming from the Academy, Professor Neiland's reputation was dragged straight into the gutter. Now, in a partial and self-serving article in the current RA Magazine, the Academy's Secretary, Mrs Lawton Fitt, has set out to reassure us all, and the Academy's many friends and benefactors in particular, that all is well. She speaks of Our internal investigation following the discovery of an unauthorised bank account in the Schools, and a pattern of unauthorised deposits and payments'. She goes on to admit that 'we have received oral assurances that the funds . . . were legitimately disbursed in operating the Schools', but labours the point that no supporting records were kept. 'The irregularities,' she declares, 'were discovered through the diligence of the Academy's staff and internal and financial monitoring systems.' So that is all right, then.

What she chooses not to say is that the account in question was no secret at all. It had been openly set up and used by Professor Neiland for at least the previous four years, so now to claim its discovery is, to say the least, disingenuous. Indeed, a member of Mrs Fitt's own office advised him to close it down some three years ago, which advice he doubtless wishes he had taken. And she also conspicuously fails to make clear that the monies at issue were raised by Professor Neiland himself. It is a nice irony that, in the same issue of the RA Magazine, another Academician, Ian Ritchie, exhorts his fellows to take much more upon themselves in working on behalf of the Academy. No one, certainly in its recent history, has been more active on the Academy's behalf than Professor Neiland.

The Keeper's principal responsibility is the running of the RA Schools. Upon his election to that office six years ago, Professor Neiland found that, of some £700,000 previously raised specifically for the benefit of the Schools, only £300,000 had come anywhere near them. He promptly resolved to plug the leak, and over the years since has raised by his own efforts some £1.4 million, principally in the form of bursaries and awards. His personally catastrophic mistake was then to take it upon himself to keep under his own immediate hand a fraction of that sum for direct use in and for the Schools - a mistake compounded, of course, by the failure to keep proper account. These are the £80,000 at issue, spent over the past several years variously on physical improvements and refurbishments, materials and equipment, direct help to students and entertainment in aid of further donations.

Over these six years, Professor Neiland has also raised the profile of the Schools immeasurably, quadrupling its application rate and reconfirming its historic position as one of the three principal post-graduate art schools in the country. That press release indeed quotes the President of the Academy, Professor Phillip King, as saying, 'We recognise Brendan Neiland's many achievements for the Schools and we regret that his tenure had to end in this way.' Privately he has said that 'he did a terrific job'.

All well and good, so far, and easy enough to sort out, or so one would think. But the more we look into this Neiland Affair, the clearer it becomes that this whole business is not just about an unofficial account and unaccounted funds: it is about power.

The Academy, we should remember, receives nothing at all from public funds, and must raise every penny for itself -from sales, exhibitions, subscriptions, donations and, increasingly, from selling itself in whatever way it can. …

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