Charity vaunteth not itself … except sometimes

Friend of the Royal Academy, James Birkin, believes the RA is neither open nor giving enough considering its charitable status; and overly concerned with business.


It is said that a true friend will speak truth unto power. How sad then that the Friends of the Royal Academy are denied the chance to do just this. Recent correspondence with this writer indicates that the RA does not see the necessity to allow its loyal supporters the chance to meet and thereby influence policy. Were there to be meetings questions such as those below could be asked and addressed. Surely it is right that if the RA receives millions of pounds a year from the Friends and benefactors it should in turn listen to (and indeed act on) what Friends might wish to say.

The RA is a charity that massively assists the interests of the Academicians who are also ultimately responsible for how it operates. This has been a way of doing things since its founding in 1768. Time and status have together conferred a degree of protection from closer examination. Certainly the impression one receives when visiting Burlington House is that of being admitted as a guest to a St James’s club. Yet this politeness seems also to conceal an exercise of very real power. After 250 years perhaps it is time to ask exactly what is the role of the RA in the 21st century.

The obvious first answer is education. True to its name the Royal Academy has a school which has a discerning annual intake of 17 or so wholly funded students. The RA’s 2012 report also highlights substantial efforts to involve schools and colleges under the rubric ‘Academic Affairs’. Under this title it is interesting to note the academic facilities also available to Friends. These are generally at a cost and of course, as such, exclude the majority of the public. Whether these are better categorised as fund-raising events  or ‘academic’ is, therefore, not entirely clear. It might be a little unfair, but nevertheless interesting, to note that if there was an intake of 17 full-time students per year for three academic years the school would comprise 54 students. The turnover of the RA per student would then be approximately £39,000,000 (gross RA turnover)/54 = £722,000 per student per year. This takes no account of the unique position of the RA and its other functions. It also relates to turnover not profit, but, nevertheless, it highlights the relative lack of importance of the RA schools in the overall picture. The figure also does not take account of the usage of the schools for external Charity work and education. The RA refers to this in its annual report. However, the degree to which this happens is less clear and should be at least further explained.

The second answer is that we also know the RA puts on exhibitions. These might be seen as part of the charitable objective of educating the public, although the steep cost of tickets makes one question whether this relates only to a wealthier public who don’t need charity.

Finally, it confers great honours on mainly British artists by appointing them Academicians. Since the RA has charitable status this raises the question of what degree of concomitant responsibility for the wider artistic community should be placed on this privileged group. Given that the RA takes substantial benefits from the public purse, and is also crucially supported by its Friends, the way it operates is the subject of legitimate criticism.

Leaving aside benefits such as paying small business rates and no corporation or income tax, in financial terms the RA generates income of over £30 million a year. Were it just an art school it would be horrendously expensive (the private Heatherley Art School in Chelsea, for example, manages a far larger student intake for well under a million). This implies that the justification of the RA needs to be placed on a rather broader plinth than simply the education of artists. It needs genuinely to reach, entertain and educate a wider public. It is undeniable that the RA has a huge fan club, not least amongst those who can afford to visit the shows, but how widespread the support is in other areas is debateable.

In addition the RA differs from an ordinary school in having to maintain the Grade 1 listed building (which it occupies at the public subsidy of a peppercorn rent). This is clearly expensive but it hasn’t stopped the RA having extensive rebuilding ambitions or prevented pay rises to senior staff well above the rate enjoyed by those elsewhere in the public sector. So one suspects (perhaps as a tribute to the Chief Executive) that financially it is in robust shape.

It also houses what is effectively an exclusive club of self-selected artists, sculptors and architects – the Royal Academicians (RAs). This small club (80 in number) is highly influential. In view of the financial receipts from outside sources the way it operates needs to be transparent. Sadly, opacity seems to be the tint of the day.

The most glaring conflict is the enormous promotion of Academicians’ own work by the RA. By definition these are already successful artists. So can the degree by which their work is promoted really be seen as a charitable object?

Promotion of RAs and their work to some degree is understandable and desirable since the RA needs an identity. What is harder to understand is the degree to which this happens. This leads back to the question of how the ‘club’ relates to the ‘charity’.

I would venture to suggest that lines of demarcation are needed. Distinct areas of operation seem to be: the legitimate promotion of the RA and its work; the preservation of the identity of the RA; and ensuring that charitable objects have primacy. Then perhaps splitting charitable objects into more specific aims such as promoting the interests of art and artists at a lower level than the RA, educating at school level, educating at degree level, and last but not least  educating (and entertaining) the public. The raising of money to achieve these objectives is of course vital and impinges on all these areas. This raises an obvious further danger that the operation becomes more about raising money than meeting core objectives.

Most obviously contentious in terms of conflicts of interest is the Summer Exhibition. Academicians can hang six pictures in the show. Having some Academy input might at least preserve identity and lend kudos. But why so many works each? The works can be of any size and are often the largest. It is hardly surprising then that every Summer exhibition in recent years has extensive areas occupied by RAs, thereby squeezing other artists into leftover corners. This unjust imbalance needs to be reduced. This could be done either by substantially lowering the number of works permitted (to perhaps one) and/or to limiting their size.

The process of selection from non-RA submissions at the Summer Exhibition should also be more transparent. If non-RA artists have been invited to submit, thereby short-circuiting the process of selection, the public should know the extent to which this occurs. It is galling to those who submit to the RA to see that the odds of acceptance have shrunk even further when it is revealed a large number of invitees have been included. For those who follow the usual route of submission, the process of selection of pictures has also perennially been alleged to be tainted with bias. Selection is by definition biased so there are massive problems in creating a more transparent system. No real answer has emerged as to how to deal with repeated prejudices (whether conscious or unconscious). What is achievable is better statistical analysis of the Summer Exhibition. What were the chances of getting in last year? How many invitees were there? How many first-timers were allowed in? How many have been repeatedly selected? More information will bring greater transparency and create more confidence in the fairness of the process.

The Jackdaw has in previous issues analysed the money received for the Summer Exhibition. The receipts for non-RAs versus RAs is roughly equal. If one factors in the huge imbalances, the RAs do not produce anything near the same income as non-RAs per square foot. Indeed the real instrument for democratisation via purchase is the editioned print. Most of these are sold by non-academicians for reasonable prices. While taking up negligible space they generate substantial income. Of course it is always said that the whole ethos of being hung with Academicians is what gives the unknown artist more status. I would suggest that it is being hung at the RA itself that is the key factor.

Another key question is how artists are selected for individual shows at the RA? My perception is that living artists recently shown have largely if not exclusively been from the RA or closely connected with it. Presumably any show must be “bankable” as a pre-requisite, but once that is established how are selections made? How are the commercial arrangements managed to ensure the charity receives good value? What chance do other distinguished living non-academician artists have of obtaining such a show?

The Academicians’ privileges do not stop with the Summer Exhibition or their own shows. On leaving the Summer Exhibition one is met by a shop exclusively selling books and merchandise about or by Academicians. One can even buy a giclée print of work by the late Mary Fedden RA for the outrageous price of £800. This specific item seems to epitomise the conflict between garnering funds and helping educate the public about art and the artist. It is hard to see that selling a giclée reproduction in this way and at such a price can do anything except harm the work of traditional printmakers who struggle daily to educate the public to the subtleties of genuine prints.

Looking at income of the RA (£39 million in 2012) – the  three most substantial sources are; trading subsidiaries (£15.9m), exhibitions and charitable activities (£8.5m); and from voluntary income (£15.1m), which includes income from the Friends (£8.8m).  In addition Friends’ subscriptions were swelled by a further £1m in gift aid.

Unlike most other institutions that have a ‘Friends’ arm, the RA is massively dependent on the support of the 93,000 friends. Friends’ income is vital to its survival. Friends receive a magazine and now have access to the recently and expensively furnished Keeper’s House. They are increasingly pampered but are not allowed a voice. If Friends have questions they can contact the Chairman of the friends. The problem is that the “guests of a club” model is a false analogy. The Friends (guests) actually empower (pay the subs for) the club. Without the Friends the RA would have the greatest difficulty in functioning.

Such a process of separation should bring a re-examination of objectives. For example, is the Summer Exhibition about money or education? Are there other objectives for the Summer Exhibition, such as the helping of lesser-known artists to establish a toe hold or allowing the public to buy affordable art? It would also force an evaluation of how RAs benefit and what they should contribute to the Charity in return. Common to many commercially successful charities, the Academy’s main weakness is the maximisation of profit at the expense of charitable objectives.

To counter this, the Academy should make efforts to seek out criticism and alternative opinion. Giving the Friends a voice by allowing an annual meeting might be a productive first step.

James Birkin

The Jackdaw, 2014