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The new bridge viewed from the Schools Courtyard (© David Chipperfield Architects)

It is worth reflecting on what the opening of the new Burlington Gardens building means for the Royal Academy, besides being a good way to celebrate our 250th anniversary.

The first is its sense of scale. Richard Carew-Pole, who chaired the Development Committee, used to say to potential donors that the site of the new Royal Academy, which will run from Piccadilly in the south to Burlington Gardens in the north, is as large as the site of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I am not convinced that this is true. But it was always a very effective way of making people realise the full extent of the campus as a whole and that it would provide an intellectual and cultural campus right in the heart of Mayfair.

The second feature of the project is the way that it makes visible all the component parts of the Royal Academy. In the past, most people have thought of the Academy only as a major exhibition venue — the site of the annual Summer Exhibition and a place of pilgrimage for big blockbuster exhibitions, climbing up the early 19th-century staircase at the front in order to see the work of David Hockney or Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer or Ai Weiwei, or, more recently, Abstract Expressionism or Jasper Johns or the art collection of Charles I. There was no particular sense that the Royal Academy is, or has been, anything much more than a kunsthalle, a place for the staging of big, international, sometimes travelling exhibitions. But the Royal Academy is, and always has been much more than this: it has Britain’s oldest art school, hitherto invisible in the basement; it has a substantial collection of art works, many of them given by former Royal Academicians as their diploma work, but supplemented by gifts — this, too, has been largely invisible; it represents Britain’s leading, living artists — but how many people know or are aware of this ?

From May 19 this year, the Royal Academy has become a bigger, more complex, more multi-dimensional entity. At the front is Sydney Smirke’s façade, festooned with statues of the great artists of the past — Michelangelo and Leonardo, Raphael and Titian. At the back is James Pennethorne’s façade, a pantheon of public intellectuals. I like to think that the opening of the Royal Academy’s new building will give it back its original intellectual intent, as a place of thinking about art, as well as exhibiting art — a place where you can see and witness the practice of art and understand its origins, as well as appreciate its contemporary formation and the works of some of the greatest living artists.
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