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Friday, June 8, 2012

A bit of Fry and Perry launches £6m Royal Academy upgrade

 Being a Friend of the Royal Academy means putting up with facilities akin to a 1970s polytechnic staff room, Stephen Fry said, as the organisation revealed £5.7m plans to improve facilites for its 94,000 friends.

The RA has the third biggest friends scheme in the world. It is a private organisation with no public funding.

RA president Christopher Le Brun admitted the recent and enormously successful David Hockney exhibition exposed weaknesses.

The academy bills the facilities as "an oasis of calm at the heart of London", but Fry, a friend and trustee, said: "Where friends go is a bit like a 1970s polytechnic staff room. They can sit down and have a cup of coffee but we think they deserve so much more."

Chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith said of one of the RA's two current rooms for friends, the Belle Shenkman: "It took me a long time to dare to go in to it, I was never quite sure who it was for."

As part of the plans, that room and the Sir Hugh Casson room will be refurbished. The RA plans to double the space available for friends by renovating the Keeper's House, a space to the right of the front entrance which was where a keeper once lived full-time to look after the buildings and lock all the doors at night.

Saumarez Smith said the main motivation was to improve facilities for existing friends, not to radically change the numbers. They wanted to return the space "to the atmosphere of a private house", and key to that was opening up space in the basement which was once "rather squalid office space". It is being redesigned, refurbished and refitted to create a new dining room and a garden bar.

Fry said the RA was "one of the most exciting places to visit in London" and they wanted to create a club-like atmosphere in the centre of the capital.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA's secretary and chief executive, said the £5.7m project was intended to "ensure the loyalty of existing friends". "We are also conscious they are ageing and it is important to recruit the next generation," he added. "It's a happy compromise, The point is that it will be packed from dawn to dusk."

The new wing will open only to members during the day and then in the evening invite others to the bar, which is expected to appeal to a younger audience. There will also be a new restaurant run by the Irish chef Oliver Peyton.

The academy, founded by King George III in 1768, is independent with no state funding, and relies on the support of its "friends", donors and artists. Membership schemes are an increasingly important revenue stream for arts groups and museums, especially those that do receive grants, as government handouts have been slashed and economic pressures continue.

Stephen Fry, a friend of the RA and trustee of the Royal Academy Trust, said the institution was "unique and unmatchable" and "we rely on people's support". He said the current members' area was "a bit like a 1970s polytechnic staff room", adding: "They deserve more as they give so much to us."

Perry, who was appointed a Royal Academician last year, said the project was "very good because we must support the friends".
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