Supporting the work of the Royal Academy of Arts
Chief Executive of the Royal Academy Charles Saumarez Smith discusses plans to improve facilities for the Friends.
Illustration by Quinton Winter One of the great pleasures of working at the Royal Academy is the sense I have of the huge and consistent support of our many Friends. I walk through the Sir Hugh Casson Room several times a day on my way to my office on the first floor of the original Keeper’s House on the east side of Burlington House. So I am aware of the ways in which Friends use the Royal Academy as a place to escape the hubbub of central London for a cup of coffee, as well as to see our exhibitions. I am also aware of the way in which Friends contribute to the finances of the Royal Academy. Many people do not realise that, unlike almost every other arts organisation, we get no grant whatsoever from central government. Without such support, we rely for our core funding on the money that Friends pay annually by subscription.
For those with an appetite for such things, our published accounts for last year show that the contribution of Friends was £6.1 million out of an annual operating budget of £25.1 million. In other words, Friends contribute roughly a quarter of our income and it is by far the most stable and consistent form of support. Without our Friends, the modern Royal Academy would not exist.
However, with so many Friends (87,000 at the last count), many of whom live outside London, it is in our interest to provide better facilities, not least in order to encourage more people to join. At the moment, we can only offer food in the Friends’ Sir Hugh Casson Room which, with space for just 90 people to sit down, is often crowded, and the Belle Shenkman Room, which is not used as much as I would like it to be. During busy exhibitions such as ‘Anish Kapoor’ and ‘The Real Van Gogh’, the Friends’ room is ridiculously overcrowded.
Over the past two years, alongside developing ambitious plans for the former Museum of Mankind building in 6 Burlington Gardens, we have decided that, as our highest priority, we need first to develop better facilities for our Friends, patrons and potential donors. We are now able to move forward with the plans, helped and advised by the Friends’ Council.
The project is to convert the original Keeper’s House. This was added by Sydney Smirke to Lord Burlington’s eighteenth-century mansion as the private house for the Keeper (who runs the Royal Academy Schools) and now houses the Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends. The building will be transformed into improved facilities both for Friends and, upstairs, for Royal Academicians.
On the ground floor, we plan to adapt the current rooms, making them more comfortable with better seating and lighting and improving the food. The space immediately below the Friends’ room will be adapted and it will remain open into the evening for Friends and their guests, giving access into the secret garden outside.
Above the Sir Hugh Casson Room, the historic architecture room, added by Norman Shaw in 1885, will be transformed from offices into areas for Academicians and their guests, as well as major donors. And, very importantly, there will be separate loos and a cloakroom for Friends to reduce the need to queue in the main entrance.
Our purpose throughout is to improve the experience of Friends when they come to the Royal Academy. We hope to be able to service these spaces as if they were a private members’ club like Soho House, perhaps, or the Arts Club, which historically has been closely allied to the RA, with the obvious benefit that membership will be open to all our Friends at all times of the day and late into the evening, taking into account the sensibilities of our neighbours.
Putting these plans into action will not be cheap, owing to the high cost of any project involving historic buildings, particularly in the centre of London, and given the cost of installing lifts to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. We are going to need to turn to our Friends to help fund the project. So your loyalty is vital to making it possible. Thank you for your ongoing support of the Royal Academy.