Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1977 Money

Explore the 1977 catalogue

In an especially thoughtful commentary on the 1977 Summer Exhibition, Stephen Bayley, writing in The Listener, concluded that, “after languishing for a long time in the critical doldrums, the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is taking off again.”1 Significantly, Bayley did not try to pretend that the Exhibition represented the most advanced forms of contemporary art; rather, he noted that “throughout the exhibition, the illustrative idea is dominant”, and revelled in the pleasures that were on offer when “the silent majority of British painting gets its opportunity to break cover.”2 Thanks to this temporary form of artistic exposure, Bayley argued, “all the strongest, most vital, subcutaneous channels of English obsession are given full display.”3

Interestingly, Bayley doesn’t talk much about individual paintings in his review—he briefly mentions Ruskin Spear’s painting of a gorilla (Fig. 1), and his article is illustrated with Anthony Green’s Circus/Rizla (Fig. 2). What he does expand upon, however, is the issue of money, and its visibility at the 1977 display. He declares of the Exhibition that “value is the dominant theme of the show” and begins his article by noting that: “everywhere, art is for sale. There are smart, matt postcards from France and glossy art books crowding the vestibule.”4 Furthermore, as he walks through the rooms at Burlington House, he continues to see the signs of commerce everywhere:

Prices for the works in every room are hung up at every entrance and constantly shuttling is therefore necessary. Most visitors can be seen to mark the prices down in their catalogues, for money is to the Summer Exhibition what a learned catalogue entry, or a daring attribution, is to a run-of-the-mill show.5

Though he may not have fully realised it as he wrote these words, Bayley, in mentioning this issue of money, was being almost uncannily sensitive—for, behind the scenes, the question of money, or rather a grave lack of money, had been dominating the Academy’s thoughts for some time, and was beginning, as he had sensed, to reshape the character of the Summer Exhibition itself.

In the year beforehand, the Academy had found itself in a major financial crisis. In a meeting of the Academy’s governing body, the Council, on 4 May 1976, the Secretary, Sidney Hutchinson, reported that: “the current potential overdraft facility with Drummonds Branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland was in the region of £250,000, being some £75,000 in excess of the agreed facility which had been increased to £175,000 in December last.”6 Hutchison went on to report that, unsurprisingly, given these levels of debt, “Drummonds had asked for a consultation on the position and it been arranged for the Secretary and Bursar to meet their manager on 21st May.”7 Since the Second World War, the Academy had seen a gradual erosion in its financial resources, caused in part by the declining audiences attracted by its Summer Exhibition, which in earlier periods had generated the lion’s share of the institution’s income through ticket and catalogue sales alone. The Exhibition was now attracting audiences that, relative to its Victorian heyday, when it had regularly attracted more than 300,000 visitors a year, were worryingly modest, and becoming ever-smaller: thus, the total attendance of the 1976 Exhibition was 71,354, in comparison to 79,548 in the previous year. Thanks in part to this fact, the Academy, proud of its long period of financial self-sufficiency, was now being forced to think about whether it might need a government subvention to survive, or might even have to sell off some of its prize assets, including the famous Michelangelo Tondo.8 It was also beginning to think of the ways in which it might generate extra money from its existing activities, including the Summer Exhibition itself.

Thus, on 5 October 1976, the Council, chaired by the Academy’s then President, Hugh Casson, and having been reminded by Hutchison that the “estimated deficit for 1976–7 would be in the region of £200,000”, discussed a range of ways in which it might offset the deficit.9 These options were summarised in the minutes of the meeting as follows:

  1. Commission on Sales
  2. Fees in the Schools
  3. Increasing fees for Summer Exhibition, etc.
  4. Friends of the Royal Academy
  5. Increasing Publications Space.10

Having discussed these options, the Council agreed that, for the first time, the Academy was going to charge an annual fee for students at its Schools; furthermore, the Council made two decisions relating directly to the forthcoming Summer Exhibition. First of all, it agreed that there should be a rise in the handling fees for works submitted to the show; second, and more important, it agreed that “a commission of 15% [was] to be levied on all sales from exhibitions to be effective from the Summer Exhibition of 1977.”11 This latter decision was a symbolically and materially significant one for the institution, and one that Casson, in a newspaper article of January 1977, described as a “great blow”.12 In the words of Hutchison, as reported in the same article, “the Academy is run by artists and until now has always been able to do things free for artists. We can no longer do so.”13 The other two income-raising possibilities tabled for discussion—an increase in the space granted to the sale of publications, and the creation of a “Friends of the Royal Academy” membership scheme—were also quickly put into action. Bayley’s review of the 1977 Exhibition testifies to the new raft of publications that were to be encountered on display in the vestibule at Burlington House; and the new “Friends of the Royal Academy” scheme was launched on 1 January 1977.14

These decisions, and the changes they ushered in to the Academy’s workings, were to have crucial short- and long-term consequences for the institution and its Annual Exhibition. The speediest impact was made by the membership scheme. By the end of March 1977, the “Friends” already had more than 5,000 members and had generated more than £62,000 of income.15 Meanwhile, the overall impact of the tax on sales at the Summer Exhibition was made clear at a meeting of the Council on 4 October 1977.16 Though it was noted that: “the paid admissions at the Summer Exhibition were 66,008, an average of 673 per day (compared with 71,354 and 856 in 1976)”, the better news was that:

1,273 works were sold for £195,554 (compared with 1,144 for £151,625 in 1976); commission on sales amounted to £29,595—but for this there would have been a loss on the exhibition of some £7,000 but, with it, there was a likely profit of £22,000.17

Thus, despite the fact that attendance continued to slide, the Exhibition had, thanks to the new commission, made a profit.

Given that the Summer Exhibition once again attracts huge crowds and generates large sales (4,653 works were sold at the 2016 display), and basks in the glow provided by the Academy’s other blockbuster exhibitions, one might be forgiven for thinking that the discussions held in 1976 and 1977, and recorded so drily in Hutchison’s Council minutes, hold little relevance for today.18 However, their resonances are still keenly felt. Thus, having become an accepted tax on works of art sold at the Annual Exhibition, the Academy’s commission is now 30 per cent. The Friends of the Royal Academy, meanwhile, has become an enormously important part of the Academy’s strategy for income generation. The organisation now has some 100,000 members and contributed almost £9.4 million to the Academy’s revenues in 2016–2017.19 Furthermore, its membership form the greatest part of the attendees at today’s Summer Exhibitions: thus, of the 197,402 visitors to the 2017 show, 75,529 had paid at the door; 36,307 (mainly schoolchildren) enjoyed free admission; and no less than 84,966 were Friends.20 Those long-ago Council meetings, we can conclude, helped set the Academy and its Annual Exhibition on a new path, in which, as Bayley recognised with great prescience, the issue of money was going to play an increasingly prominent role.

  1. Stephen Bayley, “English Obsessions”, The Listener, 16 June 1977.↩︎

  2. Stephen Bayley, “English Obsessions”, The Listener, 16 June 1977.↩︎

  3. Stephen Bayley, “English Obsessions”, The Listener, 16 June 1977.↩︎

  4. Stephen Bayley, “English Obsessions”, The Listener, 16 June 1977.↩︎

  5. Stephen Bayley, “English Obsessions”, The Listener, 16 June 1977.↩︎

  6. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 4 May 1976, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/53.↩︎

  7. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 4 May 1976, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/53.↩︎

  8. For the Academy’s finances in this period, see Sidney C. Hutchison, “Try and Try Again: 1976–82”, in The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1986 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1986), 202–218.↩︎

  9. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 5 October 1976, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/54.↩︎

  10. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 5 October 1976, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/54.↩︎

  11. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 5 October 1976, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/54.↩︎

  12. Casson, quoted in Keith Nurse, “Royal Academy to Charge Commission on Summer Sales”, The Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1977.↩︎

  13. Casson, quoted in Keith Nurse, “Royal Academy to Charge Commission on Summer Sales”, The Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1977.↩︎

  14. For the institution of the Friends of the Royal Academy, see Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy, 203–204.↩︎

  15. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 15 March 1977, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/54.↩︎

  16. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 4 October 1977, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/55.↩︎

  17. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 4 October 1977, in RA Archives RAA/PC/1/55.↩︎

  18. The figures for works sold at the 2016 Exhibition come from Royal Academy Annual Report, 2015–16 (London, 2016), 13.↩︎

  19. Royal Academy Annual Report, 2016–17 (London, 2017), 75.↩︎

  20. Royal Academy Annual Report, 2016–17 (London, 2017), 83.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1977 catalogue