Shot over five years leading to its 250th anniversary, this film is an intimate portrait of one of Britain’s most enduring cultural institutions. With unique access, the documentary illuminates the inner workings of the Royal Academy of Arts and reveals how it embraces the challenge of balancing tradition and innovation.
Opening to the public in May 2018 to celebrate its anniversary, the RA is about to complete a major redevelopment project, designed by international architect David Chipperfield RA and supported by the National Lottery, which will almost double its current size. It has involved building a controversial link bridge that will unite the two buildings of Burlington House and Burlington Gardens for the first time, enabling the RA to open up and share with the public historic treasures from its collection, the work of its Royal Academicians and the Royal Academy Schools, alongside its world-class exhibitions programme.
Run by artists and architects since its foundation in 1768, the Royal Academy maintains the tradition of using secret ballots to elect new Royal Academicians. Following new RAs (artists Gilbert & George, designer Thomas Heatherwick, architect David Adjaye, and sculptor Cathie Pilkington) as they are formally inducted, the film showcases the ritualistic side of the Academy juxtaposed with the current transformation that is taking place within its membership. Outstanding exhibitions have been crucial in maintaining the RA’s standing in the art world. Its palatial galleries adapt to embrace huge shows like Abstract Expressionism (2016), and solo exhibitions of international stars including dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei Hon RA and Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic Hon RA, who take over the Academy’s grand spaces with their work.
Meeting architect Farshid Moussavi, artist Yinka Shonibare and the RA’s longest serving female Academician, painter Olwyn Bowey, The Private Life of the Royal Academy reveals the complicated process of arranging art works for the iconic Summer Exhibition. Few people know that the profits from the exhibition are used primarily to finance the RA Schools, Britain’s longest established art school. Hidden at the heart of the Academy, it remains the only free post-graduate art school in Europe, just as it was when classes first began in the 18th century. Many great British artists, including JMW Turner RA, William Blake, Anthony Caro RA, Eddie Peake and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, received their artistic training there.
The documentary uncovers the little-known but crucial role of the trusted Red Collars, who have been at the Academy from the very beginning and are responsible for the day-to-day running of the building, and shines a light on the secret vaults where the Academy’s collection of antique silver is kept. It also offers an insight into the nationally designated art collections, including the renowned Diploma Works. The Diploma Works come from the tradition of every Academician donating one piece of their own art work; it is a living collection that is still evolving today, consisting of astonishing works by Turner, Constable, Sickert, Sargent, Laura Knight, Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, David Hockney and many more.