Issue Number: 113
As the President of the RA Sir Nicholas Grimshaw steps down, Adrian Locke asks him about the challenges and achievements of his tenure
Nicholas Grimshaw PRA in his office at Burlington House. Photo Anne-Katrin Purkiss. What made you stand as President of the Royal Academy in 2004?
I have been both intrigued by and drawn to the RA over the years and I have always, through my family, been close to the fine arts. My father-in-law was the art critic John Russell and both my mother and grandmother had work in the Summer Exhibition. I felt I could make a difference to the running of the institution and, having reorganised my practice, felt ready for a new challenge.
One of your first tasks was to search for a new Secretary. That must have been a huge challenge to confront in your first months as President
I was determined that the post of Secretary and Chief Executive should be filled openly and transparently. We cast the net very wide and were incredibly fortunate that Charles Saumarez Smith felt that he was ready to move on from the National Gallery.
What changes have you achieved in your seven years as President?
The most important change has been returning power to the RAs through our governing Council, which we strengthened by adding three external members and lengthening the term of office to allow for greater continuity. We created a distinction between the Executive, the staff responsible for management, and Council which is principally made up of RAs and oversees RA policy. Finally, we separated out a new committee for the Summer Exhibition. With David Chipperfield RA, we finalised a master plan to integrate Burlington House and 6 Burlington Gardens, the two buildings that constitute the RA, which was unanimously supported by the Academicians.
What did you bring to the role of PRA and what advice would you give to your successor?
I drew on my experience of running an architectural practice to rationalise and simplify the structure of the RA, as well as bringing a sense of humour to proceedings. My advice to my successor would be to gain the confidence and respect of all the RAs as individuals. Without the support of the Academicians a President can do nothing.
What role do you think the Academicians should have at the RA?
It is vital to the health of the RA that Academicians take part, but participation should not interfere with their work as artists. I believe the individual commitment is not too onerous and chairing committees is both interesting and rewarding. I would like to see RAs initiate more projects here in the future.
What do you see as your legacy?
I feel that I have helped modernise the RA through the reformation of Council, re-writing the Laws (ensuring in the process that they are gender neutral), establishing a separate Summer Exhibition Committee and protecting the RAs’ interests by converting the RA to a company limited by guarantee. I have also promoted the idea of regular exhibitions by RAs (through the ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ exhibitions), seen through the master plan and created opportunities for Academicians to provide regular feedback. By ensuring the same number of men and women members have been elected during my tenure, I have promoted equal opportunity.
During your time as President, what has been your favourite RA exhibition?
I was inspired by ‘Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600’ and feel no-one does exhibitions such as ‘Aztecs’ and ‘China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795’ quite like the RA. The solo shows of Van Gogh, Degas, Kapoor and Watteau were all breathtaking.
What do you plan to do next?
I will continue as Chairman of my architectural practice. If I have any spare time I will spend it constructing things with my grandchildren, drawing, reading, seeing exhibitions (especially those at the RA) and fair-weather sailing.