Behind the scenes: a new home for the RA Collections

Published 16 March 2017

While it’s business as usual in the galleries, elsewhere at the RA major building work is transforming the Academy for 2018. Exhibition designer Adrien Gardère and RA President Christopher Le Brun explore how the plans will reveal the historic RA Collections to the public.

  • From the Spring 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    On a cold evening in January, Adrien Gardère and Christopher Le Brun PRA meet each other in the Front Hall of Burlington House, embracing each other warmly. Instead of walking up the RA’s grand staircase, which leads towards the Academy’s galleries, they walk to its side, past the toilets, to a security door standing directly behind the staircase. Swiping his access-all-areas card, the Academy’s President opens the door, leading Adrien down some steps and into one of the West End’s biggest building sites.

    The Academy is undergoing a massive redevelopment project, the most significant since the RA came to Piccadilly. But it is largely hidden from view. While exhibitions from Ai Weiwei to Abstract Expressionism have been drawing crowds to Burlington House, a matter of metres away scores of construction workers have been transforming the building that lies behind it – Burlington Gardens – shaping new internal spaces designed by architect David Chipperfield RA. These will open to the public in spring 2018, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the RA.

    The plans include an architectural link that will seamlessly connect both buildings, radically changing the visitor’s experience of the site; a world-class, double-height lecture theatre, which will be a forum for challenging debate; a Clore Learning Centre, encouraging artistic practice by the public, whatever age and background; a new suite of galleries, committed to a world-class programme of art and architecture shows; and an array of spaces that will reveal the RA Collections, its rich holdings of art and artefacts that tell the story of British art.

    It is the spaces for the RA Collections that Adrien and Christopher are here to consider. Based in Paris, Adrien is one of the world’s most admired exhibition designers. Working closely with architects and curators, exhibition designers mastermind the internal architecture of each gallery or museum space – their responsibilities can range from the arrangement of internal walls, plinths and cabinets, to lighting design, graphics and the modelling of people flow, always with an eye on optimising the experience of any visitor, helping tell the coherent story of a collection or an exhibition.

  • Christopher Le Brun PRA and Adrien Gardère on site in the Senate Rooms of the Burlington Gardens building

    Christopher Le Brun PRA and Adrien Gardère on site in the Senate Rooms of the Burlington Gardens building

    Photograph by Harry Borden

  • It was Adrien’s exceptional work for the Louvre’s new museum in Lens that convinced the Academy to hire him to help display the RA Collections. “At Lens, Adrien found a way to display the Louvre’s collection in a way that’s both lively and informative, and also completely fresh,” Christopher explains. “This included a timeline, engraved on the walls, which guides visitors through the collection’s art-historical periods. Immediately when we saw it, we said, ‘This is the man for us.’”

    After donning hard hats and other protective gear, the pair proceed upstairs to see what progress has been made on the Collections Gallery, the largest space that will be dedicated to the RA Collections. It has been three months since they last met in the gallery. This voluminous rectangular room – over 350 square metres in size and blessed with tall, elegant apertures that overlook Cork Street – had previously been divided up into smaller spaces, and was most recently used as an office and display area by Pace gallery, whose main exhibition gallery remains downstairs. The space has now been stripped back to a beautiful shell: industrial chic meets 19th-century neo-classical. By next year, it will become an immaculate air-conditioned space for artworks and art lovers.

    Christopher is curating the gallery for 2018 – as an artist-led institution, the Academy has decided that its artists should curate the displays of its collection. He has been considering the concept for several years, meeting and corresponding with Adrien. Drawings of the space, draughted on computer, have been “hung” with the RA Collections’ paintings and sculptures, and emailed back and forth between London and Paris.

    The design of the Collections Gallery, and other areas dedicated to the RA Collections, has now been finalised, and the Academy has been seeking financial support from individuals and organisations to fund the displays. To an audience of RA Patrons that evening, Adrien and Christopher revealed their vision, including an imaginary guided walk-through of the building’s newly conceived spaces.

  • Layout plan for RA250
  • Key for the above:

    [1] Spaces by The Sackler Wing
    [2] The Vaults
    [3] Entrance to Collections Gallery

    [A] Entrance to Schools studios
    [B] Schools project space
    [C] Weston Bridge
    [D] McAulay Gallery
    [E] New suite of exhibition galleries
    [F] Entrance to Clore Learning Centre
    [G] Entrance to Lecture Theatre
    [H] Senate Rooms

    Adrien Gardère After my first meeting with you Christopher, I understood the ambition of Chipperfield’s project: the creation of one cohesive Royal Academy of Arts, with Burlington House and Burlington Gardens linked by an incredible architectural bridge. In 2018, Burlington House and Burlington Gardens will have that umbilical connection. The challenge was to try to find a thread that the public could follow naturally, just by walking through and between the two buildings, that would allow them to understand the RA as an Academy – something beyond an exceptional venue for temporary exhibitions, because the RA is way more than that.

    Christopher Le Brun Yes, for example we have a great art collection that no-one knows about – we have beautiful pictures which no-one ever sees. One of the reasons we received a very generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was due to our art collection, which we want to open up to a general public. The question was how to get our collection displayed right across the site, and in what order. That was quite a complicated question.

    AG The answer was at the core of the site, which is the RA Schools [A] – the art school that lies between the two buildings and which Chipperfield’s Weston Bridge [C] will bisect. Starting the whole narrative from the RA Schools was the solution to approaching both Burlington House and Burlington Gardens as part of a unique and single realm: the Royal Academy.

    CLB This is really crucial. We have the longest running art school in this country, but actually the general population don’t know that, as it is sandwiched between the two buildings. The redevelopment is an opportunity for them to realise that in the middle of the whole Academy – and in a way the whole point of the Academy since the 18th century – is the training of the young artist.

    AG It underlines the uniqueness of the RA. There’s no other museum I know of that has an art school so closely integrated. The school is overseen by the Academy, but it also feeds the institution itself, nourishing it with artists who will exhibit at the RA in future, some of whom will become Academicians themselves. And art works from alumni and Academicians help constitute the RA’s unique collection. Their artworks are acquired or left as a donation or legacy. When every Academician is elected, they give a masterpiece of their own to the collection, the so-called “diploma works”.

    At the core of the Academy is this journey of the artist: from art student to established artist, always learning from other artists, including the masters of the past. Moving from one building to another, the visitor will experience this journey in the works from the collection. It will be understandable whether you arrive from Burlington House or Burlington Gardens.

  • Three locations for the RA's art collection

    • Anthony Caro RA, Mouchoir

      Anthony Caro RA, Mouchoir, 1990.

      © Anthony Caro. Photograph by Paul Highnam.

      [1] Spaces by The Sackler Wing

      Artists’ tools, architects’ designs and historic and recent sculptures will feature in these interstitial spaces.

    • Eros, from the Parthenon

      Eros, from the Parthenon

      Photograph by Paul Highnam

      [2] The Vaults

      Visitors will discover a superb collection of historic sculpture and casts, as well as works they inspired by students and Academicians.

    • John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea

      John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea, c.1824-28.

      Photograph by John Hammond.

      [3] Collections Gallery

      The finest treasures of the Academy’s collection come togther in this grand space, from Renaissance masterpieces to works by Turner and Constable.

  • CLB Imagine yourself in the Front Hall of Burlington House. If you go up the RA’s grand staircase, you enter the magnificent galleries, which were completed in 1868 by Sydney Smirke RA – they are regarded now as some of the greatest galleries in the world. But instead of heading up the staircase, you need to imagine yourself staying at ground-floor level and walking to the left or right along the side of the staircase. Behind the staircase is where the link will start.

    AG There you reach what we call The Vaults [2]. You will step down into an elongated brick-vaulted room, which is stunning, with very high ceilings. It is an area where the public has never stepped – a place where students, staff and Academicians have passed through, but that was full of the building’s guts: pipes, wires and storage. All those guts have been removed, and the original architecture has been recovered, or, I would say, liberated by David Chipperfield.

    As one walks through the space, a key element of the artist’s journey – learning from other masters – will be introduced through the RA Collections, in a display of the Academy’s casts of antique sculptures. In the 18th and 19th centuries, of course, there was the idea of the Grand Tour of Italy, when artists would travel to learn from the art and architecture of the Romans, as well as the Renaissance and Baroque masters.

    CLB The Academy acquired casts and sculptures for no other objective but to allow RA students who couldn’t go on that Grand Tour to draw and study from the masters. The Taddei Tondo, the greatest sculpture in the Academy’s collection, was donated to allow the students to draw from a genuine original marble sculpture by Michelangelo. It was bequeathed to us by George Beaumont. It was actually offered to the National Gallery, and they didn’t accept it, because it wasn’t a painting, so he gave it to the RA.

    AG The Vaults is not just a corridor where you glance to the right or left on your way. It will be a carefully designed exhibition space, with rotating displays of art and artefacts. Our conservation techniques, in terms of light, environmental conditions and showcases, will allow us to exhibit manuscripts and other works on paper, such as 18th- and 19th-century drawings of the sculptures and casts, drawn by RA students and Academicians.

    The Academy also possesses an incredible collection of architectural casts. For those we are developing a scheme on the ground floor, before you enter The Vaults. These displays may comprise some of these casts and their modern and contemporary architectural counterparts designed by today’s Academician architects.

    CLB The architect Spencer de Grey RA is curating this architecture display.

  • Our collection is rather special, in the sense that it not only includes masterpieces like the Tondo, the diploma works and so forth, but it also has artists’ mementoes, and the tools of their trade.

    Christopher Le Brun PRA

  • AG Yes, and I would say that that approach, with architects and artists curating the displays, avoids the result becoming too museum-ish. The Academy remains unique, a place led by artists, so the collections are arranged according to their vision. On the upper floor [1] the sculptor Richard Deacon RA curates historic and contemporary sculpture, in a space before you enter exhibitions in The Sackler Wing (The Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries).

    CLB That space will now become a proper sculpture gallery.

    AG We are not remodelling Foster and Partners’ architecture there, but rather using the space in a new fashion so that people can embrace the space as a satisfying place to see art.

    CLB We’re working closely with Maurice Davies, the RA’s Head of Collections, and his team on all the displays. One of Maurice’s ideas is a display of artefacts on the first floor that will bring out the personal stories of Academicians. These are personal or professional objects they left to RA, because our collection is rather special, in the sense that it not only includes masterpieces like the Tondo, the diploma works and so forth, but it also has artists’ mementoes, and the tools of their trade.

    AG We should go back to describing the journey between the buildings. Because after visitors walk through The Vaults, they reach the RA Schools itself. The public will cross the Schools’ historic Cast Corridor into what was a student’s studio, but which will now be the students’ exhibition space [B].

    CLB For the first time ever students will have a space at the RA in which to exhibit throughout the year.

    AG Exactly. They will have a gallery of their own through which people will pass. They could display an installation by a single student, a collective work, a group exhibition – they can do whatever they want to do with it. It will be the youthful, beating heart of the Academy, found at the very heart of the site. The students’ contemporary work here will echo the history of training seen in The Vaults.

    CLB If you’re lucky, you’ll see some students wandering around, as their studios are located to either side.

    AG And at that point you step up into David Chipperfield’s Weston Bridge itself, which traverses the void between the RA Schools studios and the Burlington Gardens building – glass will allow a view onto a landscaped area, which will include outdoor sculpture. The area is going to be used by the students and staff, as a space of gathering.

    CLB At this point, having been on a journey through the history of the Academy and the Schools, you will reach the contemporary, towards the end of the Weston Bridge. It will lead to a very handsome gallery – the McAulay Gallery D.

    AG Yes, it is not a big gallery, but it has a very high ceiling. It will display contemporary art. One idea is to invite a living artist to display maybe one large, exceptional piece.

    CLB When the space was designed, some people in the Academy said, “That’s the shop.”

    AG We fought it.

    CLB Yes we fought, I hope on the visitor’s behalf, because of course, the central spaces of the journey through the site have immense symbolism. You have to put art at the centre of the journey.

    AG That’s why we’re also having shops and places to eat at both ends of the site – close to the entrances of Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. We also want people to be able to arrive from either end of the site and find facilities and services. So, there will be shops, and somewhere for tea in the Senate Rooms [H], which are grand spaces upstairs in Burlington Gardens that will also feature architecture displays.

    CLB We’ve designed in your honour, Adrien, a tiny little espresso bar. You know the ones in Paris with a zinc top, where you’re just in there leaning – something you do most of the time Adrien! We’ve got a little coffee station just as you walk in from the street. Upstairs, in the Senate Rooms, there’s a place you can linger.

    AG Next to the Collections Gallery.

    CLB Yes, and to recap, once you’ve entered Burlington Gardens, walking through the McAulay Gallery, you reach the building’s main staircase. To one side there will be the Clore Learning Centre [F] and the double-height Lecture Theatre [G], which is going to be absolutely spectacular. Then you walk upstairs, and at the top of the stairs, by the Senate Rooms, is access to the Collections Gallery [3]. It’s a very grand room, and I have the job of curating it.

    The theory of the room is this: it houses the treasures of the collection – a series of great masterpieces, often by the founding Academicians. Although I was getting some pressure from people to present the Academy as a contemporary institution there, I think it is very important to mark out in the Collections Gallery the original territory of the foundation of the Academy. So, there will be masterpieces by the great founding and early Members such as Reynolds, Gainsborough and Angelica Kauffman, to tell the story of the first 60 years between 1768 and 1828.

    At the beginning of this period, the aesthetic of British painting was based on masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo. As well as working from casts, artists were encouraged to make copies of the masters’ paintings. So, for example, we show a wonderful series of full-scale painted copies by James Thornhill of Raphael’s famous tapestries. They show the scale of ambition of artists in the 18th century. And they have never been seen by visitors to the Academy. There is also the great copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper. Now, you may say, “Oh, it’s just a copy.” It may be a copy, but it was a copy done within Leonardo’s lifetime by one of his most talented students, Giampietrino, and it’s the only record of what the painting really looked like, because the fresco in Milan is badly damaged. Again, it was given to the Academy. It shows what the Academy stood for.

    AG Copying is a word that is so badly received. This gallery will remind us of its importance, because repeating the gestures of the old masters was central to 18th-century ideas.

    CLB Artists mirrored the spirit and ambition of those great masters. But then in the same gallery, we will show our breathtaking paintings by John Constable, including his studies of clouds from the 1820s. Constable was painting the most ephemeral, evanescent, transient things that you can imagine.
    Think of the cultural implication: in a short, dynamic period, you’ve moved from classicism to the heart of English Romanticism with Constable. Romanticism was, in some ways, the country’s greatest contribution to art history. French painting was enormously influenced by Constable. It is a big, big break from the past, because Constable was suddenly producing work with the recognisable feel of modern art – subjective, obscure, transient. So, in this room, we are showing this extraordinary shift.

    AG There will be works on paper, including drawings after Raphael and Michelangelo. They are very delicate, so they will need to be taken out of the light probably every six months.

    CLB The great works, though, will really need to be there to see any time you want to visit. The Academy constantly rotates its temporary exhibitions, and there is sometimes a sense in this place of endless change and endless flexibility. Here, I am making the case for permanence.

    To find out more about the RA’s redevelopment, visit our RA250 page.

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