The RA is not a charity

Inspired by landscape painter Patrick Cullen, The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011 reprinted pieces about the Royal Academy that have appeared in The Jackdaw over the last eleven years. All deal with the genuine fears of artists that the Summer Exhibition is progressively a closed shop whilst being marketed as an ‘Open’. Patrick’s research succinctly reinforces previous claims made by artists that the chances of an outsider featuring in the Summer Exhibition are now so seriously diminished that no gambling man would ever accept such long odds. Justifiably over the years this has become a common lament because, as Patrick demonstrates, an inverse logic now seems to apply: as the cost of having a work considered increases (currently £25 per item) so the chance of successful selection is reduced. Even a less cynical person than myself must conclude that the Summer Exhibition has become a calculated ploy to fleece lesser-known artists, many of whom can ill-afford the submission fees in the first place. This is done in order to shore up the finances of a membership-only club many of whose beneficiaries are already well-to-do artists; indeed some are among the world’s wealthiest. This Robin-Hood-in-reverse ploy is surely a perverse betrayal for an organisation purporting to be a charity. Where the Royal Academy is concerned, it would seem that charity not only begins at home but ends there as well.

The Academy is a registered charity whose annual accounts may be examined on the Charity Commission’s website. (Did you know, for example, that the President of the RA trousers sixty grand a year? And there I was thinking he gave his time selflessly for God, the Coalition and the dog’s bollocks of gold chains.) Notwithstanding our frequent claims in these pages that it is no longer an ‘Academy’ using any accepted definition of that term – and how can it be when a downright charlatan like Gary Hume is Professor of Painting? – I have arrived at the conclusion that it is no longer a charity either, if, that is, it ever was one. My purpose here is to demonstrate that the Royal Academy is a business, pure and simple, and bears negligible resemblance to a charity. It does less and less for artists in general and more and more for its Academicians 301 Moved Permanently in particular.

My understanding of charity is doubtless an old-fashioned one. She stands among Giotto’s virtues in the Arena Chapel, the junoesque rustic dispensing grain, veg and manna to the needy. A modern equivalent is The Salvation Army, an organisation for which I have personal fondness. Somewhat of a laughing stock these days with their Victorian uniforms, simple principles and enthusiastic (if not exactly euphonious) brass bands at Christmas time, they look after the poor, lonely and deserted. They perform visible good works and they do

301 Moved Permanently

it without living high on the hog by siphoning off donations to pay for posh offices, flamboyant places of worship or overpaid officials. They cared for two of my relatives, one of whom, a vagrant grandfather persecuted with imprisonment by those unsympathetic to his irrepressible free spirit, lived and died in a Salvation Army hostel, the last of many with which he had over 40 years of wandering become acquainted. The Army’s charitable works are conspicuous and basic – hot soup, shelter, a bunk, a bath and a kind word for the homeless.

Using the Sally’s criterion of free giving the Royal Academy scarcely looks anything like a charity. It is a strange charity indeed whose main beneficiaries are the organisation’s own members; namely, the 116 Royal Academicians, many of the most celebrated artists of the day, for whom its Mayfair stately home functions as a gentlemans’ club.

Exactly what services does the Academy supply to the public to deserve its charitable status? It runs an art school in its basement, much like any other for which students pay fees. It puts on exhibitions for which it extorts stiff admission charges effectively excluding all but the better off who don’t need charity anyway. It is a business which mounts exhibitions, flogs unnecessary souvenirs and feeds and waters the well-heeled. On the face of it the Royal Academy gives nothing away to anyone sufficiently disadvantaged to merit the description ‘charitable institution’.

In its defence it doesn’t receive a farthing from the Arts Council, although there’s no reason why it shouldn’t qualify. Another ‘charity’, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which receives £1.5 million per year in public subsidy as well as regular infusions from the National Lottery in fulfilment of seemingly permanent lebensraum ambitions, is charging a steep admission of £9.50 for its current Thomas Struth retrospective (and if you book in advance they’ll throw in lunch for thirty of forty quid apiece). What does the Whitechapel give in return for its charitable status if not free admission to the shows it mounts? I’ve sang this song before, and it’s always been received with deafening indifference, but what is a charity doing subsidising the promotion of a famous German photographer whose works are now selling at auction for over a million dollars apiece and who is represented by two of the world’s wealthiest dealers? I don’t get it. How does any of this constitute ‘charity’? The dealers themselves should be paying for the privilege of promoting their artist in this public arena in order that the Whitechapel can show the work free of charge and therefore make at least some stab at fulfilling its charitable educational responsibilities. For the duration of the Struth exhibition at least, the Whitechapel is not a charity at all, it is, like the RA, a business.

Defenders of the Academy are ever eager to announce as loudly as they can shout it, that it receives no public subsidy, a statement that has become accepted wisdom. This is the kind of half truth many of us expect nowadays from arts organisations eager to parade their thrift, enterprise and cost-effectiveness. Needless to say, it isn’t true. There is the small matter of its premises, Burlington House, for which the Academy holds a 999-year lease (850 years of which remain) vouchsafed at a peppercorn rent by the Secretary of State for Employment, Transport and the Regions. A massive building, a palace indeed, with a suite of arguably the finest rooms in Britain, a furlong from Piccadilly Circus … What, I wonder, might the Candy brothers extract for this peach? No public subsidy? Pull the other one.

Leaving aside its objective “to engage with the widest possible public”, which it doesn’t and never has done, in its declaration of charitable objectives the Academy states a purpose “to represent the professional interests of all artists and architects to the public and to government.” Its only real connection with “all artists” is the annual Summer Exhibition, the first of which was staged in 1769 and hung 136 works by the 34 founding members. Helping artists, whose average income incidentally is below the Government’s poverty line, is an aim worthy of a charity. But the Academy is gradually reneging even on this, for the small charitable purpose it performs in showing the work of those who have little opportunity to exhibit elsewhere is now badly eroded. The impression any outsider might form is that the Academy would, if it might get away with burying such bad news, rid itself completely of outside submissions to the Summer Exhibition, but it can’t because of the money this contributes to a precarious balance sheet.

Details of the Summer Exhibition’s finances are omitted from the accounts so I’ve had to work them out for myself. I visited the exhibition a fortnight before it finished in order to make a record of sales. My rough figures are probably only as good as the doubtless desultory information provided.

There were over 12,000 entries to this year’s exhibition, 1,117 of which were displayed. A thousand will have been the work of the RAs themselves. So 11,000 entries at £25 each is £275,000. Assuming that half of the average annual 150,000 attendance pay the exhibition entrance charge as non­members at £10 apiece, this delivers another £750,000. With a fortnight still to go, although one suspects the overwhelming majority of sales were long completed, the number of works sold was 3,812, of which 3,436 were editioned prints. The number of works sold by RAs was 1,004 (26%) and by outsiders 2,808 (74%). The total value of works sold was £3,199,975, of which £1,648,499 (52%) was generated by RAs. In terms of their value to the Academy, Academicians, though they sell half the number of works, are worth more than outsiders: the average cost of a sold work by an RA being £1,642 against the equivalent figure for an outsider of £553. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that the work of non-members, as Patrick Cullen demonstrates below, occupies only 29% of the overall space. (Interestingly, only 7% of the works sold are paintings and sculpture, the other 93% are editions – comprising 90% prints and 3% photographs).

The Academy takes a 30% commission on all sales, including those of RAs – which generates another £960,000. The prima facie revenue of the Summer Exhibition, therefore, comes to ca. £1,985,000; a figure that might easily be doubled when you consider – and this may surprise you as it did me – that its shops and restaurants contribute more revenue (£9 million) than exhibition takings (£8.5 million) throughout the year. When costs are taken into account I assume the profitability of the Summer Exhibition is in the region of £3 million. To understand something of the importance of the milch cow that is the Summer Exhibition to the overall financial health of the Royal Academy, in the last published accounts the annual surplus was as low (on a turnover of £31 million) as £600,000.

Far from reducing the number of outsiders exhibiting, the Academy should be encouraging more participation from non-members because not only would they be conforming better to their charitable purpose of representing “all artists”, but they would

also make more money. With this in mind they should make more room for outsiders by ejecting the works of Honorary RAs like Jeff Koons. He and his ilk don’t need to exhibit at the Royal Academy, State Art being more than generous to them already. To have hidden in the corner of the courtyard the major work of an RA sculptor, James Butler, whilst giving prominence to the already over­-exhibited gaudy tat of Koons was an insulting mistake. Is promoting Koons, or Ruscha, or Kiefer, really consistent with the Academy’s charitable status? No it isn’t, indeed it is completely unjustified and inconsistent with it. Likewise, the now accepted practice of inviting artists, usually the friends of RAs, should also be stopped for it is a naked scam. The space released should be given to more of those from the open submission.

Furthermore, in order to rectify the system by which poorer artists have their pockets rifled in order to keep the RAs in the club to which they have become accustomed, the Academy should charge RAs 40% or even 50% commission on sales. This is the least of what they would pay an art dealer. An increased figure for RAs would allow a reduction to the existing 30% for those not fortunate to be members. This would enable the Academy to fulfil one function of any charity, this being the voluntary redistribution of wealth from those who are prosperous to those who struggle.

If the Royal Academy doesn’t wish to help more artists by showing and selling their work, and thereby allowing them a better than basic living, its bogus charitable status should be removed and it should be re­classified as the business it is and taxed as such. At the moment it serves no obvious charitable function.

David Lee

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011