How the Royal Academy’s new architectural link may well lead to the building of even more important cultural and commercial links
Two parallel worlds suddenly and dramatically linked by an unexpected and hidden doorway. In the case of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie first discovers the magical world of Narnia while playing hide and seek, pushing her way through a store of fur coats at the back of a deep wardrobe until she finds herself brushing aside the branches of fir trees and emerging into a snowy landscape.
As of 2018, visitors to the Royal Academy will also be able to make their way from the world of public art through the new link corridor joining the RA’s Burlington House off Piccadilly to 6 Burlington Gardens, the building it acquired in 2001.
In turn, this access will help introduce the art-loving general public more directly to the wonders of a new world many will not have seen before: the art trade in Mayfair, most specifically in Cork Street, which lies just across the road from number 6’s front door.
Even better, the £50m transformation of number 6 includes a 300-seat lecture theatre, a permanent home for Royal Academy Schools students to exhibit their work and more space for contemporary and current exhibitions. The public coming through from Piccadilly will also gain access to one of the best-kept secrets of 6 Burlington Gardens: the Cast corridor.
Making a whole new world of artistic connections
The single most important change is that the Burlington Gardens building will be used a great deal more on a daily basis. As architect Sir David Chipperfield put it, “We’re knocking a hole in the wall. It’s a small amount of architecture for a large amount of result.”
So Royal Academy students will be regular visitors to the building, giving them the opportunity to look across the road to commercial galleries that could soon become their mentors and representatives.
This is very welcome news after the depredations dealers have faced in the Narnian-like perpetual winter of recent years, forced out of galleries they have occupied for decades as the White Witch of luxury brands and property developers has cast her frozen spell.
As Charles Saumarez Smith, the secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy, told The Guardian: “This is not just a major building development, it is an undertaking which will transform the psychological, as well as the physical, nature of the Academy.”
And just in time for the RA’s 250th birthday.
The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions lists the Royal Academy as having had just under 825,000 visitors for 2014, putting it in 35th place. That was a 19% fall from the 1,015,505 it welcomed in 2013, when it took 26th place, itself a 19% fall from the 1.2 million that brought it 17th place in 2012.
Since then the Houses of Parliament, Kew Gardens, the RHS Wisley and even Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, among others, have surged passed it, so the revamp and extension come at just the right time to breathe new life into Burlington House and the Royal Academy’s collection and exhibition programme.
Playing the percentage game with the Royal Academy’s visitors
If even 1% of those who pass through its portals – already interested in art by the very fact of their visit – proceed through the link to 6 Burlington Gardens and out the other side, that will mean close to 10,000 people already thinking about the wonders of art entering the magical world of Mayfair and its unrivalled gathering of fine art and antiques businesses. Echoing Charles Saumarez Smith, it will be a psychological transformation for both public and trade.
Not only that. The business potential for all will blossom too. As a public institution, using a fair proportion of its new space to educate artists in their formative years, the new-look Royal Academy will doubtless be looking for support in various guises to help keep its programme fresh and vibrant.
What better opportunity can there be for auction houses and galleries to offer their services and even financial backing in forging new relationships with the Royal Academy and its students? It could even help fill one of the biggest and longest-standing gaps in fine arts degree courses: teaching student artists how to negotiate their way into the commercial market and make a living.
This must surely provide one of the best arguments of all for Westminster Council to press ahead with its Special Policy Area initiative, aimed at protecting the cultural and artistic profile of Mayfair.
The unique juxtaposition of the expanded Royal Academy with the premier art-dealing enclave this side of the Atlantic should also give the Government pause for thought as it brings together the politically attractive possibility of boosting the nation’s culture, business and employment prospects in one fell swoop.