‘Galleries are safe, but visitors need to feel that’: can the Royal Academy survive without funding?

The venerable institution is facing an £8 million shortfall, its chief executive says. Can vaccines save the sector before it's too late?

Getting the punters in?: the Royal Academy's delayed 'summer' exhibition
Getting the punters in?: the Royal Academy's delayed 'summer' exhibition Credit: PA

Axel Rüger, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy, is “cautiously optimistic” about this week’s vaccine news. “We live in hope every day that this vaccine will work.”

However, he’s “trying to manage expectations with colleagues” after doing some rough sums himself. “It needs to be sufficiently administered throughout the entire UK population. If we estimate 130 million doses, over 365 days, then 360,000 people a day need to get the vaccine. That’s eye-watering. Especially given that we struggled to get 100,000 tests done a day. So, we’re not out of the woods yet.”

But Rüger does believe the vaccine could “make a dent by the middle of next year. And anything would be helpful – not just in terms of health, but visitor confidence. We’ve done everything we can, museums are super-safe spaces: they’re large, you’re never stuck in one place for any length of time. We’ve reduced visitor numbers to guarantee social distancing.

“But of course people need to get to these places – so it’s not just the gallery itself. They have to use public transport, and feel safe doing that. And we need to rebuild confidence about coming back into London. We learned from the first lockdown that just because the rules changed didn’t mean everyone would be rushing back.”

The Royal Academy’s foreign visitors only account for about 25 per cent – much less than many London galleries, notes Rüger. “So we’re really looking at people from Greater London and further out, from the regions, to return.” 

Axel Rüger, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy

The gallery’s fate, he believes, is tied into that of West End theatres. “It’s all interconnected. As long as the West End remains dark, that’s a huge problem for us. And for the cafés, bars, restaurants. We need it all to come back to life together.”

Yet the pattern of our lives has changed, points out Rüger. “Only time will tell whether or not this is part of our new reality: people working from home more, and so less likely to come into city centres.”

However, he does believe that “we’re social animals. Human beings want to do things with other people. So, bit by bit, I think we’ll rebuild that confidence. The vaccine will make a huge difference. But I’m thinking in terms of it growing back, rather than springing back.”

Might the vaccine mean that galleries can lessen other safety measures, like masks and temperature checks? “That won’t be up to us – it’s up to the Government. I imagine some measures will stay, even with the vaccine. There will be this parallel world for a while where some are vaccinated and some aren’t. We won’t have full immunity for the population immediately. So social distancing will probably continue.”

That’s a major financial challenge for the gallery – which doesn’t receive any public funding. Currently, they’re making up an annual budget shortfall of about £8 million, and, sadly, they’re in the midst of redundancy consultation, reports Rüger. 

They’re likely losing “fewer than 100” staff, rather than the 150 reported in September. “But that’s still a considerable percentage. In a climate where this is happening all around us, we’d like to protect our staff. But it’s just not possible. We’re incurring big losses that we’ll have to make up.”

Crouching Nude, Tracey Emin; her new exhibition will be one of the highlights of the RA's reopening  Credit:  @ Munchmuseet

The gallery applied to the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, asking for a grant, but didn’t receive anything because one of the criteria was protecting organisations against bankruptcy before March 2021. The Royal Academy fell into that no-man’s-land: in serious financial difficulties, but not at risk of bankruptcy within the next six months.

Another issue is the capacity caps imposed with the Government’s new tier system. Rüger thinks they’re too general. “It’s a maximum of 1,000 people, irrespective of the venue and its facilities. So it could be a building with big rooms, but the doors are only 1 metre wide and cause enormous bottlenecks.

“Of course you need some guidelines and parameters. But most organisations are really savvy. We know that if you let too many people in, it backfires because visitors get nervous and don’t feel as safe.”

Is there more of a compromise number, taking into account both safety and the gallery’s financial needs? “Well, for us to really do OK financially, we should have at least 75 per cent capacity. Anything below that is challenging. But I know that won’t be possible for a while.”

Rüger’s biggest fear is another lockdown. “Every time we have to close down again, that’s the worst. But it might happen. Winter hasn’t really started yet.” Can they last until, say, mid-2021, when the vaccine has been rolled out? “We’re making financial provisions with that in mind. If we manage our money very carefully, we can ride it out.”

At least donors have been generous this year, he says. “I hope we can keep them engaged. That, and regaining public trust in visiting exhibitions, becoming friends, is the most important thing for our recovery.”

A similar public trust campaign will be needed for convincing everyone to take the vaccine too, he observes. “As well as the humongous logistical challenge. That’s still quite a journey.”

Marina Abramovic, who is coming to the RA in 2021 Credit:  PA

The big enticement, he hopes, is the gallery programming great work and “showing people what they’re missing!” That includes the Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch exhibition, which was due to open in November, delayed by lockdown, and is now finally being unveiled. “We’re also working with really big, prominent artists like Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Marina Abramović on exciting projects for 2021.”

The Abramović exhibition, postponed from this year, is being scheduled in the hope that some rules are relaxed by then. “It’s performance art, so for that to work and for the audience to enjoy it, we need less distancing.”

Although we were deprived of gems like the Abramović over lockdown, the Royal Academy’s social-media manager, Adam Koszary, made their Twitter account a joy, with its witty quips and daily doodle competitions. “Our online engagement has been considerable. We will try to continue that – keep it more of a hybrid experience.”

But, believes Rüger, “the experience of live art, live theatre and music still can’t be beaten. That’s why people will want to come back.”