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249 years of teaching artists in the RA Schools

Published 18 June 2018

At the heart of the Royal Academy, you can find Britain’s longest-running art school, which has been training artists since 1769. As soon-to-be graduates present their final year show, Skye Sherwin speaks to students and tutors to find out what’s changed in the last quarter millennia.

  • From the summer 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The RA Schools was founded in 1769, a year after the Royal Academy came into being. A century later, after the Academy had moved its premises to Burlington House, the architect Sydney Smirke RA created a suite of gilded galleries and a series of large, simple studios for the Schools beneath them. Completed in 1869, these studios are arranged in a row beneath a high slanting glass roof, and have changed little in almost 150 years. “Smirke clearly designed them as a place of work – the girders have been left bare”, explains Curator and Head of the Royal Academy Schools, Eliza Bonham Carter. “He did a really brilliant job in designing a modern art school. They’re adaptable, that’s the thing.”

    In the early days, the RA Schools were primarily a place to learn to draw. Students would begin by drawing from casts of classical sculptures, before graduating to working with life models. When I visit in March, I see works in progress by students in their final year who are preparing for the RA Schools Show: weavings created on a traditional wooden loom, video work embracing pop culture role-play, eerie paintings of distorted Pinocchios from some nightmare digital realm, graffiti paintings of anxiety-ridden Gen Z-ish phrases – like “must work harder” and “kill me now” – and fabric sculptures made with Vietnamese plaids. Today, evidently, while it still nurtures emerging painters as originally intended, the Schools embraces the whole creative gamut, be it ephemeral performance or virtual reality. “There’s something really exciting about putting new technologies inside buildings designed for old technologies, and seeing young artists innovate”, says Senior Tutor, Brian Griffiths.

    In the past two decades, the RA Schools has evolved into a pioneering postgraduate art programme, unique in several factors. There are no fees. It’s small: only around 17 students a year are accepted. It runs a three-year course as opposed to the usual one-year MA. And it is independent of the government guidelines. Sung Tieu, the 30-year-old German artist behind the plaid sculptures, says the Schools’ open approach to teaching is something that really stood out when she decided to study in the UK. “The RA seemed like the most free, in the sense of education. We don’t get marks, which is important. That’s a difficult concept – to judge and give grades to art”. And just how does the RA teach a subject so seemingly without limits in form or content, in a way that marks it out?

  • Unlike regular degree shows, the students’ final exhibition for instance, is not an exam. As Bonham Carter points out, this has big implications for the way artists learn. “It allows for a clarity of thinking in terms of their practice, as opposed to fulfilling someone else’s criteria”, she says. “Maybe this is romantic, but I think it’s the freest they’ll ever be. They’re having to deal with the expectation of the Academy, but they’re free to challenge that, and they’re not having to deal with an overly commercial situation or an academic examination”. To further the boundless interests of their students, 21st-century art schools typically provide a course backbone of one-to-one time with permanent tutors as well as student “group crits”, bolstered by a shifting roster of voices. These include tutorials with visiting artists, as well as lectures and seminars that may travel beyond art’s traditional bounds.

    This year’s RA programme has included talks on the ways science attempts to end ageing; the Afrofuturist sci-fi fantasy of a black Atlantis; Josef Albers, the first head of the experimental art school Black Mountain College; and William Blake’s relationship with the Royal Academy. “There’s an inclusiveness to how people want to think and make”, says Griffiths. “We can be analytical about how different people come to understand things. You can’t just sit people in a lecture and say, ‘everybody’s going to learn now’”. Obviously, the RA Schools have come a long way since the days when Abstract Expressionist John Hoyland – who later became an RA – saw his radical canvases removed from his 1960 diploma presentation on the order of the RA’s President, Charles Wheeler.

    Rebecca Salter RA, the current Keeper of the Royal Academy, is keen to point out, however, that in some respects the model established when the Schools were founded in the mid-18th century still stands. As the Academician responsible for the Schools, the Keeper is unique to the RA – a necessary figure for overseeing the diverse range of teaching at the Schools. “The first Keeper, George Michael Moser RA, didn’t want this to be like a European academy, with a powerful professor and students underneath him, all coming out the same”, Salter explains. Instead, those who taught at the Schools did so for a just a month each. “From the beginning they wanted a multiplicity of voices. That was originally provided by Academicians, but now it’s visiting artists from Britain and beyond.”

  • Today, the onus is on students to navigate the available options. Tucked away in an editing suite, 37-year-old Roland Carline is working on videos that will accompany a performance he is creating with Francis Majekodunmi, a dance artist with Downs Syndrome. In freeze-frames, they appear dressed as Beyoncé and Dolly Parton, Spiderman and Black Panther, and an alien and astronaut, using these characters, as he explains, to explore different ideas.

    Carline had spent 12 years as a community artist, working with young adults with learning disabilities, before deciding to return to study. “I wanted time to figure out what my role was within that arena, rather than just taking what work was available to pay the rent”, he reflects. In Carline’s three years at the RA, he has benefited from inviting Grayson Perry RA to speak, having discussions with Anthea Hamilton, who created this year’s Duveen Galleries commission at Tate Britain, and participating in a workshop with the contemporary dance legend Siobhan Davies. What makes the RA so different is, he says, how it is “really fluid as to how you research and access your own practice, as opposed to the more standardised way of listening to theorists give lectures and writing academic papers. Instead you work out where to align yourself in a far broader creative world.”

  • Skye Sherwin is a freelance art writer.

    • The RA Schools Show 2018

      8 June – 1 July 2018

      Beneath our galleries, 13 artists transform their studio space to present new work as they complete three years of postgraduate study at the Royal Academy Schools.

      Francis Majekodunmi and Roland Carline, Film still from 'Bossy'