Mikaela Lostedt:

Artist Interventions at the Royal Academy of Arts - benefits of the Living Academy

I work as Curator and Gallery Manager at commercial gallery Helsinki Contemporary. With nine years behind me at the gallery, I applied to the Mobius programme in order to develop professionally as a curator and to further extend my network in the art world. The global contemporary art scene is a complex web of networks to navigate in; nevertheless it's crucial for someone like me to have an understanding of it. I saw the Mobius programme as a great opportunity to deepen my knowledge in the London art scene.

My original wish for the Mobius programme was to look into the tradition of curating commissions, which is very strong in Great Britain and is also something Helsinki Contemporary wishes to develop within our collaboration with our artists and different clients. The process of finding a hosting institution for my fellowship was somewhat long, but when The Royal Academy proposed a very interesting project I decided that it would work well for me. The topic of the research project was contemporary artists intervening in the RA collection displays. Interventions at the RA, and in the end interventions by artists in general, can resemble commissions: there is a commissioner, the museum, and the artist who is asked to work within certain parameters. So I was not very far from the wish I had when I applied.

Artist-led institution

The Royal Academy of Arts is an institution that celebrates its 250th Anniversary in 2018. The organisation has always been and still is artist-led. It’s a museum and gallery, but also promotes the practice of art and runs the first art school in Britain, which still today is tuition free. The Academy was founded in 1768 and shortly after gained their first home at Somerset House, from where it moved to Burlington House in 1868.

In my meeting with Tim Marlow, the artistic director of the RA, he stressed the mission statements of the RA: to train artists and to maintain the reputation of British art. Through this the institution has a freedom to work with such a varied programme of both historical exhibitions and contemporary solo shows.

The RA has a collection of their own consisting of approximately 30 000 works of art, often are donated by artists, alongside a historical library and archive with documents and publications from ca. 1750 onwards (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/collections-and-research, 01.04.2017). Before my Mobius fellowship I knew only the very basics of this collection and did not know that there are small-scale collection displays at Burlington House. My visits at the RA had always centered on the big blockbuster exhibition on view at that time.

Currently the RA is going through development work for the Anniversary in 2018. The main site, Burlington House is being linked to Burlington Gardens, where new spaces for collection’s displays and exhibitions as well as an auditorium will open.

My Mobius project was proposed my Maurice Davies, Head of the Collections Department at RA, and was linked to this development work. As part of the strategy for the opening of the new spaces the Collections Department have plans for introducing a programme of interventions by contemporary artists in their collections displays. The Mobius fellowship period focused on researching how to best work with interventions and this was done through gathering information from potential artists and institutions that have had a programme of interventions but also finding out RA staffs previous experience in working with contemporary artists in the collections. One of the concrete aims was to formulate different models of intervening in the collections and to identify best practices.

Central for the research were the RAs, Royal Academicians, that kindly took the time to answer my questions in regards to future artist interventions. There are 80 RAs at any time, always practicing artists or architects in the UK. In addition to these there are Honorary RAs, artist from outside the UK. All are elected by existing RAs. For my research I interviewed seven current RAs with varied backgrounds to find out alternative views. My project was complemented by interviews with current or former students and current teachers at RA Schools. This gave me a good understanding on two vital elements of the RA, the academicians and the Schools (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/royal-academicians#the-ras, 01.04.2017).

Contemporary artist intervening at the RA

One of the bases for my research was the definitions for interventions by James Putnam. An intervention is according to him “interweaving or juxtaposing artists’ works so that it merges or interferes in some way with the museum collection or site” or “artist undertaking a temporary rearrangement of galleries and museums collections to provide a (more personal) comment”. Simplified one could say that the artist is “commenting” or “curating” (Putnam 2001, p. 154).

The following thoughts regarding interventions also served as a starting point for me:

  • Interventions by artists often open new views, perspectives into the collection and/or new ideas on how to work with the collection.

  • Interventions by contemporary artists are a way of keeping up the dialogue between a collection and a contemporary programme.

  • It's a possibility for the institution to examine its activities and history critically.

During the research I discussed the different reasons the RA had for venturing into interventions. It was stressed by one of the directors of a museum with a long running interventions programme that it is essential for the institution to have a clear “why” for doing interventions.

As already stated, interventions are a way of bring a new perspective to the collection and the works in it. During my research I found a number of different 'why's' for the interventions programme at the RA. By adding artists’ comments and contemporary works the RA aims to see the collection with new eyes. It’s also important to maintain a dialogue between the heritage of the RA, the historical works and the contemporary programme. Another important aim is to reach new audiences. The aim of the upcoming collections displays is to reveal and celebrate the hidden academy: the school and the Academicians. The interventions will support this message; they will be realised mainly by Academicians and Schools’ students and they are being heard already in the planning process. Also, making the Academicians more visible to the public is an important aspect, in this way the interventions will highlight the living academy.

Through discussions with colleagues and the Head of the Collections Department, the ‘whys’ for the RA's interventions programme were crystallized as follows and could be defined as the following mission statements:

The aim for the interventions programme is: ⁃ To explore the history and culture of the RA and the relationships between the past and the present. ⁃ To benefit from the RA being a living artists' academy

Interviews and findings

The method for my research was the interview. I formulated a list of questions, one for interviews with artists and the other for interviews with institutions. Before each interview I also did research and wrote down some specific questions for the artist / director / curator I was about to meet.

Some of the research questions were:

⁃ How do we define interventions in this context and what are the different types of interventions that might be suggested? ⁃ Do artists have an interest in intervening in the RA collection displays? ⁃ What relationship does an Academician have with the collection? ⁃ Are some types of interventions more popular than others? ⁃ Have interventions been part of the artists’ practice before? ⁃ How long do artists need for the research and then the preparation of the works? ⁃ Would the artist agree to working within a theme? ⁃ What kind of resources in form of RA staff will the interventions require? ⁃ Why have the institutions started to work with artist interventions? ⁃ What have institutions that learned in the process of realising interventions? ⁃ How have the institutions experienced the collaboration with artists?

My research started with talking to Collections department staff about previous projects with artist interventions that have been realised in the RA. The two central ones are Mark Hampson: Almost Real Art and Edmund de Waal: White. These exhibitions had proved artistically very succesful, although some practical challenges had emerged during the process. The projects had been very engaging for the staff working with the artists and they also proved popular to the visitors.

The next step in my research was to start the interviews with artists, Academicians, former and current students at the RA Schools, to find out their point of view and thoughts on intervening in the RA Collection. I contacted institutions that have realised interventions before. The aim was to work out different models or frameworks for interventions that could be taken into practice.

In the interviews with the artists I found out that there is an interest in making interventions among the artists. Interventions in museums in general are relevant according to them. The relationship between art and museums is still seen as important. Interventions make people re-evaluate the collection; they vitalize it and engage the public to think about the collection in a different way. They keep things lively. If successful, an intervention can bring new audiences to the institution and this is one reason that makes interventions relevant. More specifically the artists I talked to all also think it’s relevant to do interventions in the RA collection. They find the RA collection and the RA history intriguing. In the discussions many of them even spontaneously came up with things that could interest them in the collection. The artists also find both curating and rearranging the collection and making new works that comments or responds to the collection interesting.

One of the key questions was whether or not the artist would mind working within a theme or with a specific work in the collection. Some of the artists wish to have as much freedom as possible, but quite many also recognised that working with a topic or a brief or a specific work might be interesting. What I found through these discussions and also talking to RA staff was that it would be important to talk about parameters, inside which the artist is free, instead of an artist having to adhere to a theme.

Institutions that have worked with interventions by artists were very satisfied with the projects and said they’ve learned a lot through them. The interventions were seen as an important part of their programme, they keep the relationship with the collection lively and in best cases bring new audiences. The institutions also recognised some challenges when running an extensive interventions programme, but these can be avoided with good planning. Every curator or director I interviewed stressed the importance of contracts with artists - each project should be as clear as possible and state which the institution’s and artist’s responsibilities respectively are. Another critical point that came across was staff resources. The directors and curators stressed how the resources should be taken into account when planning the interventions so that there are not too many different research projects going on at the same time and thus taking up too much time from the staff. It’s was seen as important to provide the artist with one contact person to oversee the project and help the artist find their way in the collection and preferably this contact person would be the same one throughout the project. As the first discussions with RA staff showed, the functioning relationship between curator and artists is of importance.

Through presentations of my research and impromptu discussions with colleagues some questions and wishes were put forwards. A balance between big scale and small-scale interventions was seen as desirable but some directly expressed an interest in having spectacular visible interventions that disrupt the exhibition experience. At the same time some artists already put forward interesting ideas that could work on a smaller scale in in display cases or just as responses to specific works in the collection. Another question was about the publicity, it was seen as vital that the timing of the communication of the intervention would be successful since it plays part in how well new audiences are reached. Big scale, visible interventions will naturally be more likely to get attention, but well planned also insightful smaller scale intervention with the right artist might also interest the media. The question of inviting only Academicians and School's students to do interventions was also challenged by some. It was stated that since an intervention is an opportunity to examine the institution's heritage critically, why not invite outside artists to intervene.

Reflections

What I learned during my research is that there is a very strong tradition of interventions and artist residencies at museums in Britain. Not that many museums in Finland work in that way, although there are some successful individual interventions that have caught my eye during my studies and my professional career. I’ve come across so many very interesting, well produced and successful examples during my time in London that I really want to encourage the Finnish scene to do more artist collaborations in the form of interventions.

While going through my findings from the interviews and reflecting on them, I see there is a huge potential in the RA as a place for artist interventions. My hope is that the interventions programme will start successfully in 2018 and then continue as a natural part of the Collection department's activities. It's of course a matter of resources, but I'm confident that the width of the programme can be adjusted to fit the department.

I have found that there are many benefits an artist might gain from working with an intervention. In an ideal intervention project they feel discovery and have a chance of trying out something new that they haven’t done before. It’s really an opportunity to develop their practice as the nature of the intervention often allows experimenting in a way that the artist otherwise might not venture into. An intervention is often a learning experience and a chance to take time for research. Many times an intervention can mean that the artists get a chance to exhibit with art historically significant work.

From the institutional curator's point of view an intervention project offers the curator a chance to work closely with a contemporary artist and help them find their way through a collection. Through this process the curator may find out new things about the collection or at least see it in a new way. When establishing an interventions programme it might be good to have different members of staff as curators for different interventions. This could potentially lead to more varied projects due to staff’s different interests, knowledge and focus on the collection. It is also the way the RA has worked up until now. Naturally in the end it’s the artists’ practice that formulates the end result, but I do think that a curator’s input can be of great value.

An intervention is by nature very much driven by the artists' own interests, the idea of the intervention must come from the artist, but at the same time these projects can resemble commissions. By inviting an artist to work with the collection the museum is commissioning a new work within some parameters set from the start. During my time at the RA I formulated two templates of briefs for artists that can be used when inviting artists to take part in the intervention programme.

The RA also provided a very intense introduction to an important art world institution and I got to meet a group of very influential artists through my research. By frequently visiting as much other openings and exhibitions I built my knowledge of the London art scene bit by bit. I had the chance to deepen my contacts with curators and art professionals I knew from before and also made met many new faces. I felt I got a better grasp of the different layers of the field and the connections made will hopefully be fruitful at one point or another.

References:

Putnam, James, Art and Artifact: the Museum as Medium, New York, 2001.

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/royal-academicians#the-ras, 01.04.2017

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/collections-and-research, 01.04.2017

Mobius