The Royal Academy is inextricably linked to summer in the capital by virtue of its most well known event: the Summer Exhibition. Each year works by amateur artists, those still looking for their big break, are exhibited alongside the work of the established Academicians: artists elected to the Royal College of Art (much like scientists are elected to the Royal Society). It is an exhibition like no other, with visitors guaranteed to see work by artists that they would have never heard of otherwise. This laudable support of emerging artists has been historically absent from the rest of the RA calendar. This is because, despite being one of the most prestigious postgraduate art schools in the country, beyond the annual RA Schools Show, the Academy has rarely allowed the public to be privy to the contemporary art being shaped within its walls. As a result, outside of the blockbuster shows, the RA struggled to draw in visitors.
All this is about to change. From next week, 250 years since the Royal Academy was created, the New RA is set to be unveiled.
For the first time, two RA buildings in the heart of Piccadilly – one in Burlington House, and the other in Burlington Gardens – will be joined into a unified campus in which the public are free to wander. The merging has been designed by architect Sir David Chipperfield, who, rather than overhauling the historic buildings, has staged “diagnostic, punctual interventions”: a concrete link bridge here, a space-transforming skylight there, to create a whole that is fiercely modernist and respectful of its considerable history.
The expansion will put the Academy’s collection on display for free to the public for the first time. Visitors will be able to see works that include Michelangelo’s ‘Taddei Tondo’, the only marble sculpture by the sculptor in Great Britain. Elsewhere, the Senate Rooms have been repurposed as a permanent gallery dedicated to architecture.
Finally, and perhaps, most notably, the RA Schools will be at the heart of the new Academy. Students will rotate through The Weston Gallery, a public studio and workshop, allowing them to shape their art in full view of public gaze. For visitors it will be a glimpse into the forefront of contemporary art.
A new light-filled lecture theatre, modelled after the Victorian horseshoe operating theatre where dissections took place for students to learn anatomy, is the crowning jewel of the renovations. Chipperfield will kick off the proceedings with an inaugural lecture next week, soon to be followed by an engaging programme of debates and talks.
The new building is being celebrated by a free ‘art party’ this weekend, including printmaking workshops, food stalls and live music.