THE ROYAL ACADEMY’S DR CHARLES SAUMAREZ SMITH ON THE SUMMER EXHIBITION & 250TH ANNIVERSARY PLANS

As the Royal Academy of Arts’ legendary Summer Exhibition prepares to launch, Chief Executive Dr Charles Saumarez Smith tells The Resident about the academy’s 250th anniversary plans, which will be marked by a transformative redevelopment 

Words: Mark Kebble

Next year marks a decade since Dr Charles Suamarez Smith came on-board at the Royal Academy of Arts as Chief Executive. ‘But 2018 is the 250th anniversary,’ he swipes aside my mention of 10 years. ‘That will be the big celebration. I will keep quiet about the fact I have been here for a decade.’

Good luck with that, I say, considering how well things are going at the Royal Academy. On the day of my visit, it’s positively heaving with visitors eager to take in the latest exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden.

‘I have found that people don’t quite know what to expect,’ Smith smiles. ‘When we launched the exhibition many critics said “Oh, it’s just another Monet show”, but many people I have spoken to – and I feel it myself – is it’s a much more intellectual and intelligent exhibition about how artists in the late 19th century responded to looking at gardens. Monet himself was as passionate gardener as he was a painter.’

It’s a breathtaking exhibition, but it’s brilliance comes as no shock considering the Royal Academy’s recent run. Visitor figures are justly up, but you sense it’s just the beginning of a bright future for the RA. The 250th anniversary will be marked by what looks like a stunning transformative redevelopment, which will link Burlington House and Burlington Gardens for the first time.

‘It will be a huge thing for the RA,’ Smith asserts. ‘I think the matter of creating a public arts institution that stretches from Piccadilly to Burlington Gardens will have a big impact because we are right in the heart of London.’

Creating a public arts institution that stretches from Piccadilly to Burlington Gardens will have a big impact because we are right in the heart of London

The extra space promises to enable the Royal Academy to stage all manner of events and exhibitions. There will be the opportunity now to showcase the richness and depth of the historic RA Collections, which will allow many works to brought out of storage; there will be dedicated exhibition galleries for contemporary art projects and new work by Royal Academicians; a double height lecture theatre with over 260 seats, building on the RA’s heritage of rigorous and lively debate; a new Clore Learning Centre, providing space for the RA’s ambitious learning programmes; and new spaces for the RA Schools, including a permanent project space for the public display of work by students.

Royal Academy of Arts' new link bridge

Royal Academy of Arts’ new link bridge

The latter is rather timely to bring up as, on the day after my meeting with Smith, work by the RA students will be on show in the Premiums Interim Projects show. ‘I have always found it fascinating and admirable that the second year students – it’s a three year programme – are given the Sackler Gallery, which is one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in the world,’ Smith says warmly. ‘They may never have their work shown in such a good and wonderful environment. I just went up to see it and it’s very lively, it couldn’t be any more different from most of our historical exhibitions.’

Smith is an engaging interviewee, but modest at times when you look at his career in the arts to date, which started back in 1982 at the V&A.

The arts in London have changed massively. If I think back to the V&A in the 80s it was quite run down. The V&A, more than any museum, has transformed itself in the last 15 years through private money and investing

‘The arts in London have changed massively since then,’ he looks back. ‘If I think back to the V&A in the 80s it was quite run down. The V&A, more than any museum, has transformed itself in the last 15 years through private money and investing.’ Considering he moved on to the National Portrait Gallery, followed by the National Gallery, moving on to his role today, Smith is well placed to answer if London is now the cultural capital of the world.

‘Another thing I look back on is to the autumn of 1993 when I went to a conference in Toronto and I was asked to a dinner with the Canadian ambassador in Washington,’ he says. ‘After dinner there was a discussion about the arts globally. All the Canadians thought Paris was very lively, not just culturally but economically too, and that London was relatively dead. You couldn’t possibly say that now. London is absolutely the epicentre now.’

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Despite the importance of his job today, I remark that Smith still sounds joyful when talking about the arts. ‘I started a blog two years ago where I describe and record going to see things and I have found that very worthwhile,’ he says. ‘Yes my job is important, but it’s also important to retain that sense of enjoyment. This morning I went round the Painting the Modern Garden exhibition with someone else, and I went much slower and paid more attention to the pictures. Normally when I am seeing an exhibition professionally there is always a danger of paying attention to things like lighting and the visitor experience, and not actually paying attention to the central experience of the exhibition. I like being a visitor.

‘Are the arts in a good place? There is a tremendous sense of vitality, and the lively young galleries in Hoxton and Shoreditch. The only anxiety that everyone feels is that there’s a risk of young artists being priced out of the market and not getting studio space. Artists are entrepreneurial and classically they have led urban regeneration, so at this very minute they are seeking out bits of London that other people have not yet discovered.’

It’s a key reason why this job, as he approaches ten years, appealed to Smith. ‘When I worked at the National Gallery, the collection ends in 1900, so by definition there are no living artists represented. I missed the sense of liveliness of contemporary culture I experienced before at the National Portrait Gallery, so when somebody asked me if I would be interested in the job at the RA, I felt my temperament was suited to dealing with artists, architects and sculptors in the way I do here.’ It’s a marriage made in heaven – and it appears to be just the beginning.

Although Painting the Modern Garden is now over, the Summer Exhibition 2016 runs from 13 June until 21 August at Burlington House, Piccadilly W1J 0BD; 020 7300 8000; royalacademy.org.uk