Just weeks after the Royal Academy of Arts closed in March, weeds began shouldering up between the courtyard flagstones, as if remembering the prehistoric plain beneath Piccadilly.
“I suppose it was the lack of feet, but it was so noticeable,” says Rebecca Salter, who was elected the RA’s first female president in its 251-year history in December. “I made the mistake of remarking on it, though,” she adds, as she unlocks the doors, “and I think somebody thought I was cross, because next time I came, they’d gone.”
Salter, 65, visited every Saturday throughout lockdown, cycling the six miles from her home in north London for a cup of tea with her security guards – the only staff to remain on site – and RA secretary and chief executive, Axel Rüger.
Time permitting, she’d have a solitary wander through the galleries, “because there’s something very odd about a picture that’s locked away, with nobody to look at it,” she explains. “It was as if they’d been abandoned. I couldn’t have that.”
The RA reopens on Thursday – one of the first big London galleries to do so. Friends were let in last week, Salter tells me, “because they’ve stuck by us. I feared at the beginning they would cancel wholesale. Instead, all I’ve received are wonderful letters saying: ‘Why would I do that?’ ”
Revenue from the almost 100,000 Friends provides a third of the RA’s income, a welcome buttress at a time when they are losing about £1 million a month. “It is a bit of a wow,” she says, noticing my expression, “and we will still be losing money when we reopen, because with the new regulations [timed ticketing, one-way routes and so on] capacity will be 20 per cent.”
Salter is tall and very chic, with short, flint-grey hair and a tumble of gold bangles that chink percussively as we talk. She serves me mugicha, a chilled barley tea for which she acquired a taste in the early Eighties, when she lived for six years in Kyoto. “I’m sure my colleagues are fed up, because I have a Japanese story for everything,” she tells me. As an artist, her work draws on Japanese ceramics, calligraphy and woodblocks. She even listens to Japanese radio in her studio – a station broadcasting local authority notices for the blind. “Just the right amount of dull to be bliss.”
When she moved into the president’s office, Salter was allowed to choose works from the RA collection to decorate. On the walls are pale-hued paintings by Flavia Irwin and Victor Passmore, and a framed strip of canvas that her professional ancestor – founding president Sir Joshua Reynolds – used to test his colours. “Isn’t it fabulous?” she says. “I couldn’t believe it when i saw it.”
The best analogy for her role is political: Salter is like the head of state (though elected), while Rüger is her prime minister (though appointed). Salter presides over the general assembly (the body of Royal Academicians) and fundraising. The day-to-day running falls to Rüger; the postgraduate programme (Royal Academy Schools) to the keeper, currently Cathie Pilkington.
Once considered a bastion of conservatism, the RA has bloomed in recent years, helped in no small part by David Chipperfield’s magnificent 2018 renovation. Its clan of 125 elected academicians, formerly mostly white and male, is now far more diverse.
Even so, Salter has her work cut out. For one, it emerged after our interview that earlier this year the artists Gilbert & George had resigned from the RA, following a decision not to go ahead with an exhibition they believed was on the table, an outcome described as “regrettable” by an RA spokesperson.
The RA, too, is especially vulnerable to the cultural apocalypse wrought by the pandemic. As an independent charity, it is ineligible for revenue funding from the Government (though Salter hopes she might get something from the new £1.5 billion arts bail-out).
With only a small permanent collection, “our livelihood depends on a regular flow of good exhibitions”, she says. “It’s going to be tough, because those ‘blockbuster’ shows will be fewer and farther between. Galleries like the Tate, like the National, may fall back on their collections more, but we – well, we will have to be nimble, to be clever.”
Luck has been on her side in one respect. In the great game of musical chairs that is touring exhibitions, the RA had the brilliant Picasso and Paper on their walls when the music stopped. “It’s supposed to be in Cleveland now, and [Léon] Spilliaert should be in France. It’s become this bowl of spaghetti that curators all over the world are trying to unpick, though they are doing it with tremendous goodwill.” An Angelica Kauffman show scheduled for June (now stuck in Düsseldorf) has had to be cancelled. “A shame,” says Salter, “because it would have been good, as first woman president, to be showing the first woman academician.”
Kauffman was one of two women among the 34 founding members of the RA. (Both she and Mary Moser counted Queen Charlotte as a patron, which helped). Incredibly, or perhaps not, it was a century and a half before the next – Annie Swynnerton in 1922 – was elected and not until 1967 that women were invited to the annual academicians dinner. Gertrude Hermes, the first to attend, lit up a “a thoroughly masculine cigar”, a contemporary newspaper reported.
The first female Keeper (Eileen Cooper) came in 2010; the first female professors at the RA Schools (Tracey Emin and Fiona Rae) in 2011. All of which explains the outpouring of emotion that accompanied Salter’s presidency. “I thought it would be: tick, we’ve got one now,” says Salter, “but women in the building were coming up to hug me. It touched me hugely.”
Though she has not personally experienced discrimination (“My work is not about my identity as a woman, and that does make a difference”), she believes the playing field is far from level. “Look at the prices for top women artists as opposed to the top male. It’s very obvious, isn’t it?
“The thing is, I don’t know what the threat is. I’ve never understood it. Why wouldn’t you want to see things through another person’s eyes? I’m very aware – and this goes back to Japan, which is very homogenous – of the shortcomings of that, because you’re stuck in a loop. The inability to leave your own culture behind is a real problem.”
Salter has great plans for the RA, which include maximising its educative heritage (prior to her election as president, she was keeper). “The RA is about the making of art, and that is what differentiates us from other institutions. Our students are the next generation of the canon, working on the first draft of history. That is a very powerful presence.”
She resents that art is no longer on the national curriculum. “I think back to my primary school in a remote village in Lincolnshire, and I feel for that eight-year-old girl. What would have happened to her? The RA can’t teach around the country, but maybe we can do something online.”
Like many artists, Salter has taught herself. She always speaks about failure, “because art school [she studied in Bristol] was an endless parade of artists giving slide lectures on their path to glory. Not one of them owned up to those dreadful months where you go down a cul-de-sac. You need to know it happens and that it’s not the end of the world.”
Since becoming president, has she had any time spare for her own art? “A few drawings recently. They have a lot of repetition in them, and I can chart the difficult weeks because the patterns are…” she mimes a minute, fussy motion.
She is considering submitting one to the Summer Exhibition, “but I won’t be calling them ‘lockdown’ or ‘Zoom’ drawings,” she says. “Those words are going to become passé very quickly. Perhaps some people will look back on this time with nostalgia, but I think most of us will want to pretend it never happened.”
The Summer Exhibition, rather than being cancelled, has been postponed until September. “We were determined to make it happen,” says Salter, who knows what an important source of income it is for many artists. Being an RA is an “extraordinary privilege”, she adds. “All of us know fellow artists who are just as talented, who don’t become academicians or don’t get a gallery and whose careers struggle. The RA has a role in opening our doors to them.”
Such humility feels at odds with the art world. “Look, I am a complete product of philanthropy,” Salter replies, when I ask her about it. “I went to art school when you could get a grant. The family I lived with in Japan would not take a cent from me. The father said: ‘Somewhere in the world, someone is looking after a Japanese person.’ It has affected me ever since.”
The day after we meet, Salter will chair the RA’s first general assembly via video call, for all 125 members, many of whom are over 75 years old. Daunting? “I just… ah,” she lapses into silence. “Actually, what we’ve discovered in this strange period is that whatever happens, we can make it work.”
The Royal Academy opens on Thursday: royalacademy.org.uk