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What meetings are like inside the RA

Published 16 November 2015

In the latest in his blog series, our Head of Collections invites you to come along to some of his meetings around the Academy – from formal proceedings in the grand Fine Rooms, to a chat in the staff kitchen.

  • I’ve been Head of Collections at the RA for just over a month now and I’m still discovering new spaces, sometimes by peeking through previously unnoticed doors. Most of my working day is spent in meetings, which take place in a remarkably wide variety of places. The meetings in my calendar range from small ones with staff, exhibition designers and artists through to more formal ones with the RA’s committees; these are on things like architecture, learning and, the one I serve as secretary, library and collections.

    At one extreme there’s the whispered huddles in the corner of the scruffy but homely Collections Kitchen. Many collections staff have desks in the Print Room, Archive or Library and because we’re among fragile art, books and historic documents, we can’t eat or drink at our desks, not even a bottle of water. The benefit is that the ancient tradition of the communal lunch break just about survives, with staff gathering together in a tiny kitchen, furnished with what appear to be old chairs and desks from a primary school. Away from lunchtime, the kitchen serves as an ad hoc meeting room.

    At the opposite end of the scale, larger and more formal meetings often take place in one of the John Madejski Fine Rooms, which are some of the most beautiful 18th century rooms in London, dating from when Burlington House was Lord Burlington’s grand London home, much of it originally designed by William Kent, although much remodelled in the 19th century. Recently I sat in what’s now known as the General Assembly Room, beneath a gilded ceiling, with Constable’s Leaping Horse on the wall. To add to the general specialness, Mariella Frostrup sat across the table from me. The Fine Rooms can be visited on a free tour at noon every day, except Monday.

  • Most RA meetings, however, are less grand. Most of the RA’s staff has temporarily moved offsite to Blackfriars, while our Piccadilly site undergoes renovation for our 250th anniversary. Our new offices at Unilever House have a variety of carefully designed meeting areas – but my favourite spot is at a small table in the staff kitchen, by a window with a sideways view of Blackfriars Bridge. In the 1980s, management gurus used to talk about the “power seats” to choose at meetings, where you could best catch the chair’s eye and dominate the room, or some such nonsense. But when I go into a meeting I make a beeline for a seat with a view out of the window, so I can remind myself that there’s a whole wide world to consider beyond the specific focus of the meeting. To satisfy the management experts I’ll call that “taking a wider perspective on the issue at hand”.

    The place I meet people most often, for work and for pleasure, is the Academicians Room, the RA’s shabby chic private members club, recently reopened after a redesign by Martin Brudnizki, who’s interviewed in the latest RA magazine. It’s a lovely, high ceilinged room, with eccentric but tasty food as well as any kind of drink you could ever want. I still find it a novelty to have meetings in a room with table service. (Incidentally, the joining fee is waived for RA Friends until the end of November, so hurry.)

    When I was an art history student we used to joke that you weren’t a real art historian until you could walk through the National Gallery without getting lost, all the way from the back Orange Street entrance to the front. Shamefully, I never quite managed it. Perhaps when I know where every door in the Royal Academy leads I’ll feel like a fully established member of staff.

    Maurice Davies is Head of Collections at the Royal Academy. Follow him on Twitter @mauricewdavies.