Below is the transcript of a conversation between Oliver Tregoning, Head of Marketing at JM Finn & Co and Tim Marlow, as he approaches his one year anniversary as Director of Artistic Programmes at the Royal Academy.
Tim, your role is a newly created one and seems to cover all aspects of the RA, how do they all tie in and what’s the specific focus?
Well, I think that exhibitions, as far as the public programme goes, are still the highest profile aspect of the Academy and the engine in a way. So much of what happens at the Academy, aside from the membership which is obviously critical, is built around the exhibitions. I think it is good to remind ourselves that we are an Academy of architects as well as artists; we do have a collection, a very interesting one, if underrated. We have been a place of debate, argument and discussion ever since we were founded, so learning and research are also a part of that. I love the idea of joining up the whole content of the Academy, rather than individual departments being more siloed. So I suppose the focus is to bring all of the creative content of the Academy under one roof and to move forward in a more collaborative way. Collaboration is key; you can’t do anything without working with the artists and the membership. The RA has become, without being too trite, like a great cultural playground with all those aspects under one umbrella.
A cultural playground...that’s a quote that conjures up all sorts of image. Speaking of quotes, you have been quoted as saying that the RA has been establishment and at the same time anti-establishment.
My point is that there is an aspect of the Academy that is clearly the establishment. It has Royal in front of it and it has quite an interesting and quite a conflicted path. Whatever notion one has now of the establishment, if the Academy embodies that establishment within its artistic or architectural membership, by definition it has got anti-establishment there as well, because the whole place is predicated on the fact that there isn’t one orthodox view. This is something that has really surprised me. Nothing seems off limits in the way it is discussed by the membership or between membership and senior members of staff and there are so many different kinds of artists and architects here, so if the establishment is here, so is the anti-establishment. There’s also the other point about anti-establishment credentials; I really do respect major organisations, like the Tate, but there is much more curatorial orthodoxy in an organisation like the Tate than there is in a place like the Royal Academy, because of our relationship to the artist. The fact is that the Royal Acad emy is not state funded, so its relationship to the establishment is quite interesting isn’t it? It has to raise every penny it spends. Of course, it gets government indemnity, which is very important, but there is a massive sense of cultural support for the Academy and having the Royal name sometimes helps, but as it doesn’t receive state subsidies, on that level it is not part of a cultural establishment. So, it occupies an interesting place; a slippage between different positions. It’s independence is something the membership here, the artists and architects, guard fiercely.
If nothing is off limits, what is your big vision for the future?
To turn this into the most animated cultural campus in London, or Europe. We are rebuilding Burlington Gardens, via David Chipperfield’s master plan. We have got an Academy, the school is at the heart of it all, we have got a collection that will be shown in different parts of it, we have got a courtyard, we have got three different suites of galleries, we have got a project space, at least one, and we have got a double height auditorium. All of this right in the middle of London. It’s wonderful, and all of the aspects of what I supposedly look after are a part of that campus and so that’s the vision.
I note there’s a large auditorium being built as part of David Chipperfield’s master plan for Burlington Gardens – is this a new direction?
This place has always been about debate and it stages all sorts of events. For example, in the Reynolds room, the first reading of Darwin’s Origin of the Species took place and we have great events in there now, but we needed an auditorium. We haven’t had one on this site for a long time. It is, of course, for academicians to talk, but I think across the arts there is already quite an interesting crossover in this place between art and architecture. I have noticed that a lot of writers are happy to speak here- and a lot of designers and filmmakers - so I think this could be a place where the arts talk to each other. We are a place run by practitioners and, of course, I want to get critics and writers and curators, but I want practitioners.
Does having a practitioner led organisation create tensions?
There is a system inbuilt where the artists and architects run council, but they are involved in committees where discussions take place and exhibition projects are put forward. I hope that there is a feeling that their views are taken care of and taken note of. There are 126 artists and architects who are members of the Academy and the tension you obviously get in a place like this where I should imagine many of them would relish the opportunity to make an exhibition here but the reality is that there are only 9 exhibition slots per year and one of those is the Summer Exhibition, so space is limited. I also think that the Summer Exhibition plays this amazing role. Whoever wants to can show in it from the membership and you have this amazing energised melting pot each year and it’s a tradition that has been in existence as long as the Academy. I’m really looking forward to an exploration of it in our 250th anniversary year, but I can’t say too much about it, except that I’m really looking forward to having a historical look back at the Sum mer Exhibition.
The Summer Exhibition seems to be a central force for the RA. Is that the case?
I think that the Summer Exhibition plays this crucial role. Whoever from the membership wants to, can show in it, and you have this amazing energised melting pot each year. It’s a tradition that has been in existence as long as the Academy. I’m really looking forward to an exploration of it in our 250th anniversary year, about which I can’t say too much at present!
There are two great things to mention about the Summer Exhibition. The first is that it is the longest open submission exhibition in existence and should be treasured. The second is that it is what funds the schools. The Royal Academy schools are now the only fully bursaried art schools in Britain, and the reason why the 19 students in each of the three years can have full fees and scholarships and bursaries is because of the money that is gained from selling art at the Summer Exhibition. It really is win-win for the Academy.
Do you find that it gives an insight into the art scene at the moment around the world?
It gives a very varied insight, because it includes amateur and fully professional painters, with some of the greatest artists working in the world, many working for a long time without recognition, making it a very interesting scenario. On one level it is sometimes difficult to make sense of it compared with a fully curated show, but on another level, it is a fantastic opportunity. It is v ery demanding of the audience. If you look at the statistics of how long people spend at Royal Academy shows, the longest visit time for a single visitor is invariably spent in the Summer Exhibition. That is because there is so much work in there and there is so much to get through. I like the fact that it is demanding of an audience. It’s not spoon feeding, it’s not patronising, it’s saying “look there is a lot of work and you have to work through it and trust your eye, trust your judgement, work out what interests you, work out what doesn’t”. I think people enjoy making their own critical judgements on the Summer Exhibition and I think people get as much pleasure sometimes out of the work that they dislike as the work they like.
Visitors have realised that it isn’t as controlled and selected as a tautly curated show, and therefore people enter into it with that kind of spirit. I should also mention that I remember in the 1990s, when I was a critic for some of that time; the knives were really out for the Summer Exhibition. I think people have just become more relaxed about it and realised that it is this long tradition and it’s a bit of an intellectual gymnasium; do a warm up, get inside, and start pitting your critical faculties against what is on the walls and see what you make of it.
In terms of the current scene, are there any trends of particular note for you personally that you like or dislike?
Well, the internationalisation of the art world and this growing sense of expansion. I like the energy of what is happening in different parts of the world and the fact that one has access to it much more easily. I also think that cultural d ifference and what is happening in different places is potentially the most exciting thing but, of course, there is this slight sense of a kind of international language that many artists are speaking and many curators are responding to that I think one needs to watch. I think that you could argue that it is a bit like the high street phenomenon or the multinational - if you’re not careful, everything starts to feel the same.
Is that something you are nervous about?
Yes, I am a little, because I think that the market to an extent has an appetite for certain kinds of work. I don’t think that the best artists feed the market. It’s always Damien Hirst’s remark, as his manager Frank Dunphy told him, “don’t make art chase the money, make the money chase the art.” I’m not going to kick the market, it is what it is, but at the same time there is danger of uniformity, I think. On a positive note, the thing about the art world is that it is endlessly replenishing itself. There are always young artists emerging, there are always artists that are unknown being discovered, artists often reinvent themselves. I am endlessly surprised by what I see.
I guess a lot of that sort of self replenishment is down to organisations like the Royal Academy.
Well yes, but actually I would flip it and say that it is down to artists, which relates to what the Academy is all about. I think the revolution in art is made by artists. One of the reasons that London is so dominant now is because of the quality of art and the energy a mongst the artists of the last 2/3/4 decades, it has definitely been art led. The thing about London is that it is still officially the most culturally diverse city in the world; lots of artists come to London to study and to work and it gives the city that momentum. I am slightly worried about the fact that parts of central London are emptying out; the phenomenon we are seeing in parts of west London, in Knightsbridge and Kensington, where you have big empty houses. Artists have always worked throughout London and there are a lot of creative people being driven out of the city - and that’s a pity.
Talking about artists coming to London, you are bringing an artist into London who can’t even come here himself. Presumably there are quite a lot of logistics anyway setting up a big show, but bringing Ai Weiwei to London when he can’t even come here himself must add an additional layer of complication.
Yes it does, I mean he’s a joy to work with, he’s a very charismatic, engaging, quietly witty and very committed artist. I am doing the show because he is one of the best known artists in the world, but his work has not really been seen, there has never been a major institutional show. He did a great project at Tate Modern, but he’s never had a big institutional show over here and he is an honorary RA. I can go and see him and I have never felt any problems at being allowed to go and see him. One is aware that there are surveillance cameras on the road outside of his studio because he has hung little Chinese lanterns on each one of them to draw attention to them, and he has a bicycle chained up outside that he puts fresh flowers in every day, so long as his passport remains confiscated. But, the great thing about Ai Wei Wei is that he is an architect as well as an artist: he was responsible for the Birds Nest with Jacques Herzog, he has built houses, designed a village in China and a gallery nearby and he designed his own studio. He says to me, “give me good plans and give me photographs and a bit of film footage of the spaces at the Royal Academy, and I can do it.” So actually, he has been incredibly committed to the project and has been very focused on it, I mean I wouldn’t go so far as to say that because he hasn’t been able to travel his mind has been even more focused on our show, but it is an incredibly professional organisation that he is able to run. Of course it has its logistical problems; I think we will breathe a sigh of relief when the ship leaves China.
Is all his work in China?
All of the new work is, and a lot of it is coming from his studio for our show. It’ll be a mixture, it will be a bit of a retrospective; there are some loans, but in a way it is a show that we are making with him. I mean he is taking big ownership of it. For example, the curator Adrian Lock and I came up with an idea...he wanted to do it, and then he has played with our idea, changed certain things and there is a new piece in the Octagon (one of the galleries), there is a new piece in the Courtyard, there are two major installations we are trying to work on getting into the galleries that have been shown before, but not in this country, and they weigh tons! We are trying to make sure the floors don’t collapse! So that logistical problem already exists, whether he was able to travel or not. The interesting thing is the Chinese authorities have never stopped work leaving China, but you never know, so I have a contingency plan, but when that ship leaves some time in May, I will be ha ppy. We also live in hope that he will be given his passport and he will be allowed to travel, but we don’t know.
What else is in store for the RA over the next few years?
There is a wonderful show in the New Year which is a collaboration with an American museum called, Painting The Modern Garden, which is a fantastic exhibition. Monet’s the hero, Monet’s paintings of gardens before and of course during Giverny, but many other artists as well during this moment at the end of the 19th century when the modern garden as we now know it, the suburban garden, was born. We’ve got all sorts of plans that we are not supposed to talk too much about, including American absolute expressionism which might be looming on the horizon, Russian revolution art might be looming on the horizon. I need a great old master follow up to that stupendous Giorgioni show....I’ve got something nice lined up, a couple of great early 20th century masters re-shown in a different context, but we are supposed to keep a lot of it quiet because firstly, you have got to guarantee the loans, and secondly, the communications department here likes to generate their campaign, and they do it peerlessly so I’m not going to get in the way!
Presumably you are compromised on space in the next couple of years with all the building work?
Actually, amazingly enough, apart from the Burlington Gardens suite of gal leries which obviously we haven’t got, our Sackler Wing and main gallery spaces will not be affected, nor will the courtyard, which is amazing, we will continue to function, the schools will continue to function, the exhibition spaces will be functioning and the majority of staff will have to spend the best part of 2 years off site. We have compromised so that the public part of the Academy goes on.
How are you trying to attack new audiences? It is difficult isn’t it?
I think that you have got to put on great shows, and you know I have no problem with our loyal audience, why would I? I have no problem with the perceived idea that you have this loyal audience and what about new audiences? I think it is a very dangerous part if you spend, I have seen in the media, people spending a lot of time trying to attract new audiences and end up alienating their core audiences. This idea that you want to attract people who are not that interested in art, why bother? I think that the quality and momentum around what you do, if you do a good program and its a varied program that caters to a broadly cultivated, enthusiastic, engaged audience, then you bring people with it. I think contemporary art has got an important role to play here, it always has, but we need to remind ourselves that we are a living Academy; we are an Academy of artists and our school and Keifer did incredibly well when the feeling was that it might not be a mega show, it did brilliantly. I think Ai Weiwei will do well, so I want a good mixture, but I want to keep reminding people that we are an Academy of living artists, which is why in the Reubens show, Jenny Saville an RA making a new work, curating a space of artists - that interests me; the artists’ eye interests me as well as the artists brush.
JM Finn & Co has been a Premier Corporate member of the Royal Academy since 2012 and has recently extended this partnership.