ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


The Private Life of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy of Arts in London was founded about 250 years ago and is supported by Her Majesty the Queen, but it is run by the artists themselves. This balance of tradition and innovation makes for a fascinating institution - and this documentary allows you to go behind the scenes and learn all about it.

AIRED: December 02, 2019 | 0:54:06

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

[ Cheers and applause ]

Interviewer: Are you pleased to be elected Academicians?

George: Yes, we're very pleased

because it's very simple.

We as artists want to be accepted.

From the first day as baby artists,

all we wanted to do was to win

because if you win, you can be loved.

Everyone -- Artists and other people want to be loved.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Gilbert: After all, it took a long time.

How do you mean?

I mean, we are nearly dead.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Why do you think you weren't asked sooner?

I think it's very interesting because when we were young,

the idea of the Royal Academy

felt like an elephant's graveyard.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

And now this has changed in a big way.

I think every artist would like to be part of it now.

I think it's much more part of the life of the city

and of Britain than it was, yes.

It was very stuffy and removed.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

I've never had a medal before.

We'll keep it on to find out whether you can

get taxis quicker with medals than without.




Narrator: The Royal Academy of Arts in London

is an exclusive institution

that guards its privacy and traditions.

But on the eve of its 250th anniversary,

it agreed for the first time to reveal its inner workings

and the people at its heart.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Smith: We're in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Immediately behind us is Piccadilly.

The other side of the street is Fortnum & Mason.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy was founded in 1768

by the art-loving monarch King George III

in order to promote the arts in Britain,

and the first president was the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Smith: Artists had, for all the 18th century,

wanted somewhere partly just to meet one another,

and George III gave it a different level of authority.

And, indeed, the Academy has survived for nearly 250 years

not without quarreling,

but the fact of it being under the auspices of the monarchy

gives it a slightly different order of significance

to just a community of artists run by artists for art.

Man #2: So thanks to our protector and supporter,

Her Majesty The Queen.

All: The Queen.

Narrator: The Academy is run by a group of artists

called Royal Academicians.

They are elected by their fellow members in a secret ballot

and are given the privilege

of putting the letters RA after their name.

Adjaye: I love what the Academy stands for.

It's about artists, run by artists, for artists,

and it's a kind of extraordinary club,

but it's a kind of club that you do want to join

because it doesn't have any ulterior motive

except to support artists,

and I think that's very powerful.

I doubt this will help get a taxi.

I've just been told that I was probably a waiter right now,

and the medal was the only thing that maybe tipped it,

but I doubt that that would work on the street.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The president of the Academy has to keep

the potentially unruly artists under control.

The current incumbent is the painter Christopher Le Brun.

Le Brun: It's called "Painting as Sunrise."

It's slightly thrown of blood if I'm sitting in front of it,

which I realize may be a bit intimidating.

That's not what's intended, but the fact is it's a painting.

It's in the Academy, so...

-It's one of yours. -And it's one of mine, yes.


I think probably a good idea to come this way,

and then we can get the long view.



Narrator: At the heart of the academy

is a sequence of 12 palatial galleries

that are used to house blockbuster exhibitions

and retrospectives by major contemporary artists.


Le Brun: If you look at the one-man exhibitions

that we've had recently, Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei,

David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer, Jasper Johns is coming,

can you feel something about the stature

and what's required to fill these galleries?

These are tough.

These are very tough galleries.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


Narrator: When filming began in 2013,

the Academy was being mothballed

as part of a large building project

to mark the 250th anniversary,

and 6,000 pieces from its collection

were being crated up and put into store.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Burnett: In the last few weeks, we have been removing

all the paintings that are on display in public areas

in preparation for the building work,

so that's involved quite a lot of logistics

and, kind of, preparations.

It's about 950 paintings that have to be moved,

1,000 sculptures.

We've got a collection of human remains down in the schools,

which pose their own problems.

One, two, three.

There is always so much going on at the RA,

so we're hanging the Summer Exhibition at the moment,

so we've got all the Academicians in.

The building is still open to the public.

We've got events going on.

We've got a lecture going on in the other room,

and we're trying to do this kind of project on top of that.


So we're going into the library and print room.

This is, we think, slightly the holy of holies.

If you come through...

Narrator: Chief Executive Charles Saumarez Smith

has to juggle running the elaborate machinery

of the modern Academy with remaining true

to the traditions laid down by the founding members in 1768.

Smith: All right.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So, Mark, have you got the Roll of Obligation

that you're able to just show?

-Sure. -So this is quite amazing.

Smith: This is the obligation which I have to read out

when anybody becomes an Academician.

Interviewer: What's it called?

Pomeroy: It's called the Roll of Obligation.

It's an oath, essentially, a kind of promise

that every member of the Academy puts their name to

when they first get elected.

This cites everybody, so it goes all the way back

to Joshua Reynolds.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

This is the current one.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So this is the one they sign right now.

In fact, I think we've got someone coming in on the 7th.

Thomas Heatherwick is coming in.

That's right. Thomas Heatherwick, yeah.




Smith: December the 14th, 1768.

His Majesty, having been graciously pleased to institute

and establish a society

for promoting the arts of design under the name and title

of The Royal Academy of Arts in London

and having signified his royal intention

that the said society should...

Narrator: Designer Thomas Heatherwick

made the bronze cauldron

for the London Olympics in 2012

and is also responsible for the new Routemaster bus.

Le Brun: At the very far end of this historic document

is the signature of Joshua Reynolds.

Also on the same list --

Benjamin West, Gainsborough,

and so on,

so you're the latest of this great line of artists.

Woman: Right.

Very good. Thomas Heatherwick.

All right.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Heatherwick: Thank you. Thank you so incredibly much.

It's very strange, that thing.

I signed this.

I actually bowed at it afterwards

because it felt like somehow what you would do.

It's got something...

Anyway, Thomas, thank you.

[ Applause ]


Narrator: Many of us know about the Academy

because of its Summer Exhibition,

which has been held every year without interruption since 1769.

Famously, members of the public can enter their work,

and almost all the art in the show is for sale.


This is the Summer Exhibition of 1881,

and you'll see they're all holding these little books,

and another feature that's made the exhibition so popular

is that you can privately look at the prices,

look at the picture,

see whether you can afford it, see whether you like it,

see who it's by without a salesman bothering you.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Cooper: We still want the dynamic of the show

to be selected from an open submission,

which is, you know, what we're always true to.

-Tradition, yeah. -The tradition.

Narrator: As well as the public, each Academician is entitled

to submit up to six pieces of their own,

and they expect to be given prime positions

on the already-crowded walls.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Cooper: It's often a difficult balance

to show everybody to the best advantage,

and people do get very upset about where they end up,

so we want to avoid that as much as possible.

Do we want to encourage RAs not to send in six paintings?

I think...

Very few of them send in six paintings now.

Do they? -Quite a few do.

I mean, that's a bit of a minefield.

I'd take advice on that one.


Interviewer: Is it a very political place?

Of course it is because there's a young generation,

a middle generation, an older generation.

There are successful artists.

There are failing artists.

There are artists in poor health.

Put those all together, you have a spectrum of human experience,

which somehow need to be held together.


Are you still showing at the Summer Exhibition?

Bowey: Yes, I like that because I've never been the best seller

in the world, but I do sell pictures there

because, I suppose, enough people see them.

You can show how many paintings?

Six, but I generally have four

because they're quite big that I think are any good.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: At 82, Olwyn Bowey

is the longest-serving female Royal Academician.

She was made an RA in 1975, and she mainly paints

the plants and trees in the Sussex countryside.

Why do you think it's been so important for your career?

Simply because I don't think I'd have had one without it.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

You can be as isolated as you like,

but you've got to have some kind of family, haven't you?

You always see somebody you know.

You always see somebody

that you've got something in common with,

and it's somewhere you can exhibit what you do do.


Narrator: Olwyn rarely comes up to London,

but she makes an exception for Member's Varnishing Day,

which was traditionally when Academicians

could put the final touches to their work

in the Summer Exhibition.

Now it's an opportunity to get together over a lavish lunch

in the main gallery.



The RAs themselves are all fiercely loyal to the Academy

and its ideals,

but to an outsider,

it can appear to be tribal and exclusive.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Interviewer: When did you get elected to be an RA?

Moussavi: Two years ago, just over two years ago.

IS there a sense that it could be in danger

of being a kind of self-perpetuating elite?

No, I think it is a place with open doors.

I think the building,

because it's kind of so overpowering,

it can perhaps give the impression

that the place is introverted.

It's, of course, terrible for an artist to confess this,

but I think that's in a ways the power of buildings.

They can include or they exclude.

They really form impressions.

They inspire, but they can also deter.

I think that building now,

you know, it feels quite dominating.

If you were to build a museum today,

you would not make it so closed,

and you would not pretend it's a palace.


Narrator: The Academy's 250th anniversary

will also see it take over and redevelop

a large building immediately behind the existing one

with the help of a £12-million grant from the Lottery Fund.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So is this sort of going to double your size really?

Yeah, it will be a big increase.

I'd like to think it'll double the size

and quadruple our significance

because in reality, it will recover

that sense of a big 19th century cultural campus.

We'll have a huge, great public lecture theater.

We'll have exhibition galleries upstairs.

There'll be cafes, restaurants.

I hope people will come slightly more casually

than they come to Burlington House.

Up about 3 or 4 inches, a bit more.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Given that the room is normally for furniture,

I think that might look good.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: As part of the overall transformation,

the general assembly room,

the private heart of the Academy,

has been repainted and is being hung with portraits

from the Academy's own collection.

Davies: When I got here about a year ago,

I thought it would be great to hang this room

entirely with portraits of Academicians.

So I've worked with Christopher Le Brun,

and I proposed to him a lot of portraits

where the people had a twinkle in their eye or a smile.

For me, it's really high stakes in here because this is

the first hang I've done as head of collections.

It's bound to be one or two who don't like it.

It's bound to be one or two who object

to what I've written on the labels,

and if there's more than one or two,

who knows what will happen, but I hope it'll lead

to be a interesting talking point anyway.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

It's different being a curator here

because it's really important that the artists make

a lot of the decisions, I think, and obviously that can be...

There's obviously a sort of tension

that has to become a creative tension,

but, you know, they're the experts,

and certainly they're the experts in their own work.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The academy's collection consists largely

of what it calls its diploma works.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Davies: When someone becomes an Academician,

they give the Royal Academy a work of art.

Interviewer: So you've got at least one work here

by every single RA?

Yeah, I mean, there's a couple of gaps,

and there's a bit of a backlog, but yeah, yeah.


You mean some people haven't delivered theirs?

Sometimes it takes a long time.


When I'm talking to Academicians, I say,

"The most important thing is that you should give something

that you think it's appropriate for you

to be giving at this point to the Royal Academy,

and it's in a way how you'll be represented

in the Academy forever."

But I don't think it's easy.

I think it might be easier if I just said to them all,

"I'll have that one."

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So what's that?

So this is Thomas Heatherwick's diploma work.

This is a specially made version of one of the petals

from the Olympic cauldron.

Every newly elected Academician

has to offer a work to the academy,

and then council accepts it,

and there are rare occasions when there's a bit of a hiccup

and someone on council raises questions,

so it's slightly nerve-racking, and we do a little bit...

a little tiny bit in advance to try and smooth the way.

But anyway, this all went through absolutely fine.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

I think there's a lot of potential in these works

in a slightly democratic,

slightly archaic process by which we get them.

I think that's what makes it special here.



Smith: Constable's diploma work is this,

which is a "A Boat, Passing a Lock" from 1826.

Constable famously was not elected for a very long time.

In those days, it was public.

You had to write your name,

and you knew how many people voted for you,

and poor Constable, year after year,

would put himself forward for election,

and year after year, nobody would elect him,

but eventually he had such a reputation

that in his 50s, he was finally elected.



Narrator: From the beginning, the Academy has been

a private institution, and it isn't publicly funded.

It relies on ticket sales and corporate sponsors

in order to survive,

and in many respects, it's a business.

Smith: The Royal Academy is constructed to be

totally independent with government.

It's never, ever, ever had real government support.

We do benefit from the fact we own this building

and we pay on a 999-year lease, and we pay a peppercorn rent,

and I'm not convinced we'd pay that,

and we benefit from government indemnity,

which means we don't pay insurance on exhibitions.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

The economy of the Academy when I started,

it was roughly £30-million business every year.

It's now going up to more like £40 million,

and the biggest single and most significant source of funding

is our Friends.

All the time I've been here, there's been this magic figure

that one day we might get to 100,000.

We have recently just gotten to 100,000,

so 100,000 pay just under £100 a year.

We now make roughly £10 million,

and that is the most predictable source of funding.

Interviewer: Can you point out the picture of your father?

He's here, very, very small

but a very, very sweet picture of him.

How did your father come to be involved with the Friends?

He became president of the Royal Academy in 1976

and inherited a very, very unstable financial situation

and realized that unless something drastic was done,

then the Academy would fail.

He had a good comment, didn't he, about bankruptcy?


He said, "There's no independence in bankruptcy,"

so the Academicians pondered on that

and realized that there was no point

in just selling off treasures

because that only gave you a little leeway for a while,

and it didn't give you any security at all,

and the Friends started with a great deal of opposition,

actually, from the Academicians

because they were not keen on the idea of the building

being flooded by people all the time.

I mean, visitors are complicated animals

because they bring in dust and dirt

and want lavatories and coffee and finger marks

and questions, you know?

So you can understand why they were a bit weary.

Interviewer: But it picked up straightaway, didn't it?


I mean, once they paid their subscription,

they could come for nothing and bring a friend,

and there was somewhere where they could go

and sit and have coffee,

and it was a very nice ambiance,

and father always said

he wanted it to feel like a country house

and that you might find an old Labrador

snoozing behind the door, and it would...

It felt comfortable and not threatening.

I mean, it was absolutely transformed

from being something really,

really quiet except during the Summer Exhibition.

We're about to go bust.

And then suddenly it had a new life.


Interviewer: How important are the exhibitions?

Smith: Exhibitions are at the heart of the economy of the RA.

If we have a big and very successful exhibition,

as we did, for example,

with David Hockney where we got 600,000 people,

600,000 people paying nearly £20 a head,

that is a big source of income.

And also, when you have 600,000 people

coming through an exhibition,

you make a lot of money out of the shop.

You make money out of the restaurants so on and so forth.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: Not all exhibitions are a financial success.

They have to satisfy both the critics and the public,

so the stakes are always high.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Devaney: We've been thinking about this arrangement

for well over a year,

you know, since we started getting works confirmed.

We've been thinking about this arrangement

for three years.

Three years, yes, I guess.

But when they come to the academy,

when you've been looking over them,

considering them, writing about them,

and they arrive here, it's absolutely thrilling,

every crate that's opened and reveals this new splendor.

Well, I mean, this is the first show

since 1959 of its kind,

and just the sheer scale of the 12 galleries

is pretty breathtaking.

Have you painted the walls?

Yes, we have. Yes, we have.

Yeah. Yeah.

At its heart, we have what we consider to be

the four pioneers of the movement,

de Kooning, Rothko

and then Pollock and Still, and they're all painted.

These galleries are all painted a very soft gray.

What we're trying to do is encourage the visitor

to stand in the Pollock room

and think about Rothko that they'll see

and the Stills beyond working at the same time

and making their own connections between those works.

I think that's going to be so fascinating

because it's very open and fluid

like the movement was itself.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The abstract-expressionist paintings

have been lent from all over the world,

and they each travel with their own personal minder.

Jackson Pollock's masterpiece "Blue Poles"

has been flown over from Australia.

Wise: I accompanied it

from the National Gallery in Canberra.

I'm a paintings conservator,

and I've traveled with it to look after its condition

and to make sure that it's traveled well.

It's quite an arduous journey for any painting

and especially a painting which is now quite elderly

and needs a little bit extra care.

Interviewer: Is this a big moment, David?

Anfam: It's bigger than a big moment.

It's an absolute extraordinary moment

partly because this is only the second time

that "Blue Poles" has ever left Australia,

but even more importantly,

"Blue Poles" is Pollock's swan song.

It's a great crescendo almost of his entire career.

He's at once building to a high point,

but he's also saying goodbye to his own art.



Dumas: I think one of the lovely things about this museum

is that it is a bit like the experience

of going into Matisse's studio.

So I think in our exhibition,

we're trying to sort of really achieve

that similar kind of effect.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy's curators have to persuade other galleries

to lend them works of art.

Ann Dumas has come to the South of France

to ask the director of the Matisse Museum

to let her borrow a key painting for a new exhibition.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Dumas: I remember when I first came to this museum.

I was just bowled over by this juxtaposition.


The chair is such an extraordinary object,

and I think this is such a thrilling example

of the way an object in his collection

interacts with a painting.

Interviewer: Is it coming to London?

We hope it's coming to London.

I'm trying to persuade Claudine

to lend the painting to London because we...

She's already very generously lending the chair,

and we have quite a nice suite of drawings,

but this is the thing

that would pull it all together.

Grammont: I think it's important if you have the chair.

If you don't have the picture, it doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't. No.

It certainly doesn't have quite the same resonance.

But it has to be...

This picture then really has to be a star.

Oh, it would be.

It would be right at the beginning.


It would be the star of the show.

Because he did the chair as a star.



We're in the entrance hall of the Academy,

and now we're going to walk through the undercroft

to The Schools.

Interviewer: What are The Schools?

The Schools were set up in 1768

along with the rest of the Academy,

and there were a lot of students in those days.

In the first year, 69 students enrolled.

It was the first provision of public education for artists,

and for about 60 years, up until the 1830s,

it was really the only art school in Britain.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy's art school

is hidden out of sight in the basement,

and very few visitors upstairs are even aware of its existence.

They've called it The Schools

since it was first set up in the 18th century.

It doesn't look like it's changed that much.

No, it hasn't really changed.

I like the weird certainty of things,

so you have all these classical casts.

In front you have the workshop.

Then when you come 'round the corner,

you suddenly get overwhelmed by the great Farnese Hercules,

which is one of the statues which was copied

and presented to The Schools in 1815 by the Prince Regent.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

And if we go into the drawing studio,

you can see there's semi-circular benches,

and then there's a stand for the model

and then the classical casts.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So here you come into the world of the 21st-century art school.

I would love to be able to explain

what is happening in all these spaces,

but I can't because I don't really know.



Narrator: Providing an art school was one of the Academy's

founding ambitions, and many great British artists,

including Turner and William Blake,

got their first artistic training here.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Smith: It's unbelievably competitive to get in

because it's so expensive to go to art school

at post-graduate level.

Here we still don't charge fees.

Interviewer: So if it's free, who pays for it?

We pay for it.

The traditional idea, which we still maintain,

is that the profits of the Summer Exhibition

are used to finance the art school,

and that's still broadly the case.

We make a profit of about £1 million a year

from the sale of work in the Summer Exhibition,

and that £1 million covers the costs of tuition

and the teaching staff.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: As well as coordinating the Summer Exhibition,

Eileen Cooper is also the keeper of The Schools.

This is keeper's studio.

It goes with the job,

and I've been here for six years, and this is my work.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The role of keeper has existed

since the Academy was founded, but Eileen is the first woman

to hold the post for the last 250 years.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Interviewer: Why are you called keeper?

It's an ancient title, keeper, isn't it?

I don't really know.

I think I keep things safe. I keep an eye on things.

I look after things.

I try to fight The School's corner

within a loud environment of lots of people

competing for resources.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Cathie and Louisa, welcome.


When were you made an RA?

I was elected in 2000,

and it was a very different place then.

I mean, I really felt, to some extent,

like I'd joined a club, an old boy's club,

and I think, you know, with other people

who were elected 'round about the same time as me,

we've been responsible for a lot of change,

and that's a good thing.

We don't want to be something that harks back to the past.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Interviewer: Most of the names on that Roll of Obligation

is signed by men.

Hutton: I didn't check them all actually.

Did you, Cathie?

We didn't have time to read all those names.

No, but we are aware of this, yeah.

Smash the patriarchy from inside.


[ Both laughing ]

And blue for architects.

Hutton: A bit of tradition is fine,

but let's look to the future at the same time.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy does seem to be changing,

but even today, only 25 of the 79 RAs are women.

Interviewer: So where does this lead?

This leads us down to The Schools,

which is my cut-through.




I think it's rather creepy, all this, years of dust.

I was panicked the time I'd not had my keys with me.




Is this the old door?

It's all old.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

This is the building site.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy's redevelopment

will have an enormous impact on The Schools

because a new linking bridge

will cut right through the center

of their precious Victorian studios.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

COOPER: This is going to be our school's courtyard,

which will be an outside workspace for sculpture

or whoever wants to use it.

Then this will be the link that goes into the main building

and comes here into a project space.

It's exciting, isn't it?

-Yeah! -Very exciting.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

So this here is going to be the new Schools yard,

so we re-level all of this, and we also...

This is where the link bridge is going to come

out of the building,

so it comes out in the middle of the scaffold there.

It'll come out at kind of first-floor level, come across,

and it will land into The Schools gallery.

This is the run of studios all along here,

a quite key part of what the Royal Academy is.

They're a key part of what the project is,

about opening up the Academy

and The Schools at the heart of it

and making people more aware of the fact

that we have this fine art, post-graduate school

in the middle of the Academy, in the middle of Mayfair.


Interviewer: So what's this?

It's the Academicians room, beautiful light.

Yeah, it's like a little club in Mayfair for our members

and probably one of the best-kept secrets in London.

And whose work is this?

These are all work by Academicians.

It's...They're all for sale.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy's new artistic director, Tim Marlow,

was brought in to lift its profile

by attracting major contemporary figures

like the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Hey, congratulations. How far have you got?

I want to work, when I can, with major living artists

collaboratively making exhibitions.

Ai Weiwei, for all sorts of reasons, seemed to be the artist

I wanted to work with, and the institution,

the Academy was incredibly supportive of that idea.

-It looks great, doesn't it? -Yeah, yeah.

Marlow: Turner is usually there.

It's quite good that he's been replaced.

Narrator: Inviting such an overtly political artist

to the Academy was controversial.

Ai Weiwei was interrogated and put under house arrest

for four years

for using his work to criticize the Chinese government.

Interviewer: Was there a chance that he wouldn't come?

Marlow: Yeah.

I mean, he didn't have a passport until recently,

and he said to me time and again, "Look,"

ever I asked him, "Do you think you'll get your passport?"

He says, "Well, maybe I'm naive, but I always hope,

but it could be a week. It could be a month.

It could be a year. It could be a decade.

It could be never."


Narrator: He has filled the main galleries with playful

but deeply serious work like this piece

about the corrupt building practices

that caused the deaths of 5,000 school children

in the Sichuan earthquake.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Weiwei: I'm kind of shocked by seeing my own show

because I almost never had a ability to do so.

In past 5 years, I did about, I think, over 100 shows,

but this is the first one I come to see.

It looks a little bit foreign to me.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Interviewer: Are you going to bring your son to see the show?

Oh, yes.

This is definitely what I want to do

because he knows his father is artist,

but he never really sees the work being put together.


In this room, there are only artists and architects.

I'd like us all to raise our glasses,

Ai Weiwei, a great artist.

To Ai Weiwei.

All: Ai Weiwei.




Narrator: The Academy owns

a priceless collection of antique silver

that is kept in a hidden vault

and taken out to adorn the banqueting tables upstairs.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Harris: Every piece of silver that gets taken out

has to get signed in the folder basically,

so we have to basically redate it every single time,

and it's part of history basically.

It's a record.

Interviewer: How far back does this collection go?

Valentine: There's talk about it in about the 1770s

where they made a statement saying that members of council

should then give a piece of silver to the Academy.

Of course, not everybody did.

Some were very modest. It might be just a spoon.

Quite a lot gave --

We could have a quick look, actually --

these flat plates here, silver plates.

These would've been used to dress the table,

though quite often, we'll just get out a few choice pieces.

It's quite a complicated procedure

where they're laid out.

How do you know?

It's creativity.

I mean, it's our own designs, our own ideas.

Like, we'll speak to the events team or whoever is doing it,

and we'll lay out a certain way of doing it.

We'll try and get an interesting piece on each table.

Yeah, we just...

It's down to silver, down to biscuits.

Everything has to be in a creative way.


Narrator: Official functions and the day-to-day running

of the building are in the hands of a small group

of trusted staff called the Red Collars.

Rampasard: We've been here since the beginning, 1768.

There's always been a red collar at the Royal Academy,

and we do all the keys,

the security, front-of-house managers.

We deal with all the public, staff, any queries.

Is there anything I've forgotten that you can...

Well, I would say that we represent the Royal Academy,

so we are the first to...

First point of contact.

Exactly, to deal with everyone from the royalty

to anyone coming to the Royal Academy, all visitors.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Red Collars, it's the old 18th century

or maybe 19th century domestic uniform,

which the Royal Family have as well,

so that demonstrates the relationship

between the Royal Family and the Royal Academy.

The servants wear the same kit.

De Costa: Slightly different, ours is better.

Do you know why? Because ours is velvet.

The red collar is velvet,

and the one they use is not velvet,

so ours is more, I believe, more elegant.

Rampasard: I think we had it first.

We had it first indeed.

That's a good point.

It was attributed to George III.

That's why we wear it.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy wouldn't be able to stage its own shows

without major loans.

The exhibition about Matisse contains work

from more than 38 other collections.

-Roll this up. -This is the painting.

Dumas: Oh, it's wonderful. Isn't it?

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Oh, it's great.

Wonderful painting, I can't believe it's here finally.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: Great modern artists like Matisse

are now celebrated at the Academy,

but as late as the 1940s,

realism was the order of the day,

and many Academicians regarded work like this

as radical and ridiculous.

Munnings: So now I say to those students, if you paint a tree,

for God's sake, try

and paint it look like a tree, and if you paint a...

Narrator: In 1949, the painter Sir Alfred Munnings,

who was the president of the academy,

gave a speech at the annual dinner

in which he rubbished modern art.

Munnings: And still, in spite of all this...

The academy has taken an incredibly long time

to escape from the incredible damage

it did to itself by the speech which Munnings gave

when the annual dinner was broadcast.

Munnings: ...encouraging all this damn nonsense...

Smith: Everybody was listening in their sitting rooms,

and there he started berating Picasso in a very drunken way.

Munnings: "If you met Picasso coming down the street,

would you join with me

in kicking his something, something, something?"

[ Laughter ]

I said, "Yes, sir! I would."

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: Munnings' drunken tirade was so toxic

that for years,

many artists distanced themselves from the Academy.

Smith: The next generation of artists were quite ambiguous

if not hostile to the Academy.

Henry Moore was always said to walk

on the other side of Piccadilly in order to avoid contamination.

You could say it was only in the '90s

that the current generation of artists...

They don't know who Munnings was, and it's past history.

A tiny number of people over the last decade have turned it down.

It's in the public domain that Damien Hirst turned it down.

Actually not me but Tracey Emin rang him up

and he said, "I couldn't."



Narrator: Times have changed, and today,

even the most anti-establishment British artists

are happy to become Royal Academicians.

Le Brun: Welcome to Gilbert and George here

at council for the first time.

So we're just going to go around now and sign

the Roll of Obligation.

There's just a signature here that's interesting,

which is Joshua Reynolds.

-Wow. -Sir Joshua Reynolds is here.

Gilbert and George, please sign over there.

Interviewer: Was the ceremony what you expected?

Gilbert: We don't know anything about this kind of stuff,

so everything is perfect for us.

We accept whatever it is.

It's all a novelty.

I was saying to Gilbert at breakfast,

"We've never belonged to a club before in our life,

not even the more dodgy ones."

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Le Brun: This picture shows what probably a lot of people

think of as the Academy -- men in three-piece suits.

Interviewer: It looks very much like a club.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


Well, I got to get myself a new model here.

I mean, it does look like a club, but your point being?

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Academy is still seen by some

as an elitist institution

with a secretive membership that maintains arcane traditions

and stages extravagant events

like the exclusive Annual Dinner.

Yeah, okay.

Smith: We have little sheets of paper,

and the blue ones are men, and the pink ones are ladies,

and what we do is start with the top table

because there's a hierarchical aspect to it,

and we devote quite a lot of time and energy

to working out the placement on the top table.

Interviewer: You say it's hierarchical, the top table.

What do you mean? Who's on it?

This year, the American Ambassador is coming,

and the presumption is that he will be in a good place.

The speaker this year is Mervyn King,

who's the former head of the Bank of England,

and so he goes next to the president.

Okay, good. Any forces this year?

Yeah, Sir Andrew Pulford is the Air Chief Marshal.


And the Army and the Navy were unable to come.



Narrator: Despite its colorful informality,

the dinner is an ultra-establishment affair.

If the Academy was founded to enhance

the social standing of artists

who were regarded as little more than servants,

it has certainly succeeded.



Smith: It's more under the auspices of the Royal Family

than I ever thought when I joined it.

People think of it just as a public institution

like the National Gallery

or the National Portrait Gallery or The Tate,

but actually my appointment had to be approved by the Queen.

The president's election has to be approved by the Queen,

and we go once every two years for an audience

in order to tell her how we're getting on.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


This is the second volume in the series of royal books.

These continue right up to today.

We'll be writing two documents and taking them to the Queen

next year.

When I arrived, they'd stopped doing it.

Like, a lot of these sort of fairly empty-seeming activities,

it had fallen away,

but when I pointed it out, they said,

"Oh, now that is a good idea," so they started it again,

and it means that Charles and the President

get to put their morning dress on

and go down to Buckingham Palace, you know?

Woman #2: Should we just run through from her arrival

because I think the first bit, actually,

is sort of more set up and a different piece.

Yes, yes. No, absolutely.

So start from when the pro band begins at 4:30.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Grayson Perry, RA.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Narrator: The Queen has been invited by the Academy

to help mark 250 years

since it was founded by her art-loving great,

great, great, great grandfather George III.

The Academy even dreamt up a special award

for the occasion in the form of a bronze acorn.

Perry: Martin Parr is one of the most famous influential,

knowledgeable, hardworking and widely exhibited photographers

in the world today,

but I would shudder if he were to point his beady lens at me.

This is something that I wanted

to go through tomorrow morning. -Please.

Le Brun: The handing of boxes around is a classic...

-We have the box. -Gosh.

-Yeah. -Okay.

Le Brun: That is so wonderful.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Smith: I'm told that

they're only getting a handshake.

[ Laughter ]

-It's very beautifully done. -It's really nicely done.

Well done.

What is the award called?

We don't have a name.

It's just that some of them, not all of them,

will want to put it on their CV.

So then actually we do need to think what the award is.

I mean, it could be called an Acorn Award,

the Acorn Award.

Maybe not?

Le Brun: It sounds too small, Charles...

-Okay. -...the Acorn Award.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


Narrator: After five years of turmoil,

the Academy's building project is perilously behind schedule,

and the official opening has been delayed,

but the new linking bridge is finally in position.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Smith: We're standing on the new bridge.

To be honest, it's the very first time I've stood on it.

It's quite, for me, a historical moment

because we've been planning this bridge ever since 2008.

A lot of the project is a restoration project,

and this is emblematically the key intervention

which is that you connect these two Victorian buildings,

which were originally designed to be back-to-back.

You've connected them with a bridge across,

so this is the main public route through the two buildings.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


Interviewer: How far are we away from the end?

Don't make me anxious.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

I think we're pretty close.

When I first came here, there was a door that said private,

and I had the privilege to go through it,

and when I got to the other side and looked on it,

it said private on the other side as well,

so I think we've moved on from there

and now the whole point of the bridge

is to get people to see what's going on in the Royal Academy.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Smith: There's been a tension in the project,

and there's a tension in the Academy itself

between preserving traditions and innovation.

For much of the 20th century, most modernist artists thought

that the Academy was hide-bound by its traditions.

It was an old-style elite.

In the 1980s and '90s,

I think there was a different generation of artists

who suddenly realized, actually, it's quite interesting

having this slightly idiosyncratic organization,

which is representative of the interests of artists,

which is run by artists,

so that all the things which were perceived

as defects suddenly became strengths.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

Photographer: That is lovely. Okay, guys.

Three, two, one, cheese.

Thank you.

Narrator: The radical idea of an academy run by artists

for artists has survived for the past 250 years.

There's a president not looking impervious.

Yes. We have to have a portrait of you now.

Oh, stop. I've got an idea.

I've got an idea.

The Royal Academy has managed to adapt itself

to a changing world while somehow remaining the same.

Going to lock that door because the Red Collars

get very concerned about me.

Narrator: And who knows,

perhaps this peculiarly British example of continuity

with the past will still be around in another 250 years.

So welcome Gilbert and George RA.

We have to go around the other way.





So welcome Gilbert and George RA.


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