Issue Number: 116
For the first time ever, all the RAs have been invited to exhibit their work in a selling show to raise funds for a major building project at the Academy. Allen Jones RA tells Richard Cork about this rare chance to see the full range of talent at the RA today
Allen Jones RA, 'Enchanteresse', 2007. The future of the Royal Academy could be dramatically and decisively boosted by a major exhibition called ‘RA Now’, held in 6 Burlington Gardens this autumn. For the first time, works by all the current Royal Academicians will be brought together in a revealing show. And prior to its opening, there will be a public auction and sale of works in aid of the RA’s Capital Campaign, to raise funds for an innovative building project on the Academy site.
Allen Jones, who is selecting and hanging this extraordinary exhibition, is acutely aware of his responsibilities. ‘When we had a General Assembly of the RAs’, he recalls, ‘the feeling was that the auction would be a powerful advertising project, showing that our members are prepared to put their hands into their own pockets, as well as asking others to do likewise.’ The Academy has no government funding, but the Campaign is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. ‘I like the idea of an unprecedented exhibition showing the public at large the full spectrum of the RA membership without other artists being involved,’ says Jones. It will demonstrate what the RA represents, and it is a substantial exhibition with a catalogue documenting the Academy’s identity.’
Kenneth Draper RA, 'Quarry-Ascension', 2009. Courtesy of Kenneth Draper. © Barford Sculptures Ltd. How would Jones sum up the Academy’s character? ‘It really doesn’t represent one faction any more,’ he explains. ‘The old Academy shunned the avant-garde and the modern. But now it represents a far broader spectrum of British art.’ He is referring to a membership that now spans long-standing artists such as Kenneth Draper, who was elected in 1991, to YBAs such as Gary Hume and Tracey Emin, to the more recently elected artists Cornelia Parker and Mali Morris.
‘There’s such a range of talent now,’ says Jones. ‘It says a lot about the robustness of the Academy. Never has it been so rich and broad, and the exhibition will reveal this.’ What is the aim of the Capital Campaign? ‘It will unite our main site at Burlington House with our newer site behind it at Burlington Gardens, the former Museum of Mankind,’ he says. ‘David Chipperfield has designed a low-key intervention that links them.’ Jones believes it’s an opportunity that must be seized. ‘The RA Schools will have a much improved set of studios, along with a lecture theatre, and there will be a programme of exhibitions enabling Academicians to show their work in Burlington Gardens. Some of the rooms there have great wide spaces, and Haunch of Venison gallery has recently used them to great effect. By bringing the two buildings together, it will create a cultural campus in the heart of Mayfair.’
Dhruva Mistry RA, 'Spatial Diagram 06' (Vermillion), 2004-06. Courtesy of Dhruva Mistry. Jones was in his 40s when he became an RA in 1986. His 26 years as an Academician make him ideally placed for this job, as he knows many of the members well, an advantage in persuading them to take part in ‘RA Now’. ‘I’m becoming a Senior Academician this year, now that I’m 75, and having been asked to spearhead this project, I’m the guy who is talking to fellow RAs about the auction, and answering questions like: “What’s everyone else handing in?”’ I ask Jones if he is encountering problems: ‘Time is drawing in, the chips are down and the catalogue deadline is concentrating everyone’s minds.’
Honorary RAs – distinguished artists who are leaders in their field and who are not resident in the UK – have also been invited to take part, demonstrating that this very British institution is also an outward-looking one. ‘I’ve spoken to Frank Gehry, Ed Ruscha and Frank Stella, who are donating works,’ says Jones. Another Honorary Academician, Cindy Sherman, known for her eerie photographic portraits, has also given a work.
Antony Gormley RA, 'Standing Matter XXXIV', 2011. Courtesy of Antony Gormley/Photo Stephen White, London/© Antony Gormley. Jones is also committed to securing a broad range of work from the architect RAs. ‘Frank Gehry has a very long table in his studio crammed with models that would look like Cubist reliefs if they were put on the wall – very muscular, very sculptural. He has donated a splendid model for the RA auction. We’ve known each other for years, and Frank reminded me recently that he’d designed my 40th birthday cake – in the form of a ladies’ shoe, of course!’
The large rooms at 6 Burlington Gardens provide a great opportunity to show off the works by the Academy’s world-class sculptors, including Sir Anthony Caro RA’s Fold Centre, from 1984 and Antony Gormley RA’s figure, Standing Matter XXXIV, from 2011. Gormley describes this tall, distinctive sculpture as ‘a work that questions what constitutes a human presence in space’, adding: ‘A body is rather an extraordinary thing, and I’ve simply tried to say that it is an energy system. I’m rethinking the body from the inside.’
Other sculptures in ‘RA Now’ include Bill Woodrow’s BW572 Delphinium Evaluator (2005) and a brilliant red painted steel work by Indian artist Dhruva Mistry. Gormley’s generous donation reflects his belief that ‘for the RA it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we must get everybody to contribute. I’m full of hope that the RA will indeed become an agenda-setting institution, and I think it has begun to elect people who really are shaking the tree of possibility. The transformation of the buildings has huge potential.’
Bill Woodrow RA, 'BW572, Delphinium Evaluator', 2005. Courtesy of Bill Woodrow/Photo Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Has Jones been at all disappointed by responses from the Academicians he has approached? ‘Some RAs have rung me and said: “What are you giving?” I tell them that, ideally, it should be a signature piece.’
For Tony Bevan RA this means donating one of his distinctive self-portraits. Meanwhile, Jones himself is giving a trademark sculpture: ‘It’s a patinated bronze and leather figure called Enchantresse (2007). She happens to be the same scale and pose as Degas’ Petite Danseuse.’ How does he feel about the recent dramatic surge in prices commanded by his own work at Sotheby’s? ‘When I found out that £2.8 million had been paid for a set of my furniture sculpture – a table, a chair and a standing figure – I said: “It doesn’t make going to the studio any easier!” But I was thrilled to bits.’
Anthony Caro RA, 'Fold Centre', 1984. What kind of auction and sale will be held for ‘RA Now’? ‘It will most likely be a variety of conventions, including live and sealed bids,’ he explains. ‘The RA wants everything to sell, and I want to encourage every artist to put in something. I think it’s a worthy thing to do, and like all organisations, the Royal Academy is as good as the people who are in it.’ Everyone who cares about the future of the Royal Academy is wishing Jones well in his quest. ‘You can ask every artist once, and it’s not my business to badger them. But if everyone gives a serious major piece, it will make an enormous contribution to the Campaign.’ Perhaps the painting donated by Olwyn Bowey The Lucky Money Toad (2012) bodes well.