Magazine article The Spectator

Galleries: The Royal Academy

Magazine article The Spectator

Galleries: The Royal Academy

Article excerpt

What is the Royal Academy? This question set me thinking as I wandered through the crowds that celebrated the opening of the RA's new, greatly extended building. After all, there is nothing else quite like this institution anywhere else in the world.

It was a terrific party: a mêlée of artists, journalists, politicians and media types such as I have not seen since the inauguration of Tate Modern 18 years ago (with the unexpected addition of DJs and high-volume music). The whole gang was there, and rightly so. This is a significant addition to the amenities of London, including, among other things, two new suites of galleries at 6 Burlington Gardens, behind Burlington House. Amid the throng in the galleries where Tacita Dean's exhibition Landscape currently hangs, I happened to bump into Nicholas Serota. As terse as ever, he delivered a two-word verdict that went straight to the point: 'good spaces.' Which is what counts most to us, the public.

The flamboyant classical-cum-baroque building at 6 Burlington Gardens was designed by Sir James Pennethorne in the 1860s for the University of London (and later had various occupants, including the old Museum of Mankind). More recently, the RA has held a number of exhibitions here, but there was always something a bit makeshift about the galleries. The art never seemed quite at home.

It does now. The architectural joining and opening out have been deftly handled by David Chipperfield, and in some cases the interiors have been returned to their original condition by Julian Harrap -- the reinstated 19th-century lecture theatre, for example. The RA has gone from having no auditorium for talks to having the best of any museum in London. Except, of course, that it is not exactly a museum.

Again the question arises: actually, what is the RA? And the answer is an ad hoc amalgam of professional association, private club, exhibition venue and art school. There are institutions elsewhere that carry out some of those functions -- the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid for one. But not all of them. It's hard to imagine the Real Academia hosting a show such as Sensation (1997), which introduced Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and co. to a wider public.

It's the mixture of very old and absolutely new that makes the RA so unusual. The route from Burlington House to Burlington Gardens now passes through the Royal Academy Schools, an important though previously hidden aspect of what the RA does. …

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