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

1980 Thatcherite Art

Explore the 1980 catalogue

Expanding public expenditure, and the debate about what forms of arts and culture should be subsidised, marked the 1970s in Britain. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister at the general election of 3 May 1979. By 1980, Mrs Thatcher, after little more than a year in office, sought to combat rising inflation and exploding public expenditure. Political and economic pressures led to fundamentally reappraising the funding and management of the arts in Britain, shifting away from public subsidy to corporate sponsorship. Thatcher’s speech at the 1980 Royal Academy Annual Dinner, on Tuesday, 27 May 1980, extracted here, tells us in the clearest way of her and her government’s attitude to the arts and funding for the arts (Fig. 1).1 She was still flexing her muscles; most only vaguely understood the profound changes which she was striving to bring about in Britain.

Presiding that evening was Sir Hugh Casson (Fig. 2). He was renowned as an impressario of art; he had first started moulding Britain’s artistic taste decades earlier upon his 1948 appointment as Director of Architecture for the Festival of Britain.2 As President of the Academy (1976–1984), he sought to sweep away its tweedy image and broaden its appeal. New approaches were needed to attract more people to exhibitions and entice sponsors. This was essential in order to balance the Academy’s books.3 Immediately, Casson’s new broom swept firmly forward into the future with Burlington House presenting Europe’s first big exhibition of holograms, an art in its infancy.4 His reflections (made over time, which have been selected and paraphrased here) reveal the modernising changes to the Academy, which he inspired and led.

HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon responded to the Royal Toast that night.

Princess Margaret: Matthew Arnold wrote that, “Culture is the passion for sweetness and light, and, what is more, the passion for making them prevail.” Sir Hugh, it is that passion which has animated and inspired so many Presidents and members of the Royal Academy and has made it the splendid Institution which it is today.

[Sir Hugh Casson: (Thinking on the Academy) We can convince artists and the public that the Royal Academy can both embrace the new and respect the old.]5 

Prime Minister Thatcher: We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind. … that requires new thinking, tenacity and a willingness to look at things in a completely different way.

[Casson: Few people realise that [we are] a living mixture of university and art gallery, repertory theatre and department store, which without government support, each year welcomes over a million visitors … In order to raise funds for the Academy, we created the Friends of the Academy, which has been a great success. We have also trebled our income in the last three years from sales, the bookshop and concerts … The Academy’s current membership includes many who would not formerly have dreamed of crossing its threshold. The Academy is a happier and more productive place than it has been for a very long time.]6

Thatcher: I don’t intend to meddle with art. … It is a vital part of our civilization, of our vision and our heritage, I recoil from the thought of State Art. The words are incompatible. I know that unlike policies for motorways, housing and defence, you can’t measure the level of art by the amount of public money spent on it, so please don’t ask me for largesse.

[Casson: The RA receives no government grant. … It is exposed to the economic rigour of the marketplace in a way alien to other major British galleries.7

Thatcher: What I believe is important is that we should not allow some huge artistic bureaucracy to develop, charged with deciding what shall and what shall not be supported and instructed to ensure that a high level of artistic productivity should be maintained. The health of society depends as much on the discouragement of rubbish as on the fostering of excellence … we must try and bring back a more generous and a less envious society, one in which artists, performers, writers want to live and bring pleasure and prosperity to their own land … it’s a matter of creating, perhaps I should say of recreating, an atmosphere in which individual talent, and artists are, above all, individuals, who can not only survive, but flourish …

[Casson: Relationship with audience is critical … Many people regard [galleries] as intimidating places. This is what we want to overcome at the Royal Academy.]8

Thatcher: Mr. President, the patronage of the Arts must be widely diffused, for art lives by experiment as well as by conservation. However, experiment, too, is largely, I feel, a matter for private initiative …

[Casson: The RA embodies everything of which she approves: entreprenuerial skill, a world-famous brand-name, the ability to make money.]9

Thatcher: I believe that we in these islands are beginning to find again the confidence we so nearly lost, and in all that I am trying to do as Prime Minister, I am seeking to restore to our people that self-confidence, that courage. The task is nothing less than to provide the architecture of civilization; its foundations, tolerance and compassion; its pillars freedom and respect for others; its cement courage and sense of purpose, and if today that should seem to be a land too far away from ours, too far for us to make the leap, remember Apollinaire, when he said,

Come to the edge, it’s too high;
Come to the edge, we might fall;
Come to the edge, and they came;
and he pushed them, and they flew.

Thatcher’s “Make Britain Great” speech was regarded as her most significant personal pledge since her General Election Victory just over a year before.10

The Royal Academy was Thatcher’s darling as a private institution: it raised its own money, and did not rely on the state. “That’s pure Thatcherism”, she declared at a future celebration of corporate sponsorship of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition.11 She argued that the Academy, without a “penny piece of taxpayers’ money”, was a “pure Thatcherite” organisation.

  1. Margaret Thatcher, 27 May 1980, Royal Academy of Arts Archive, Transcript of Annual Dinner speeches, RAA/SEC/25/5/31.↩︎

  2. Judy Dempsey, “Impressario of Art”, The Irish Times, 4 June 1981, 10.↩︎

  3. In 1977, the Royal Academy faced an overdraft of £500,000. Jose Manser, Hugh Casson A Biography (London: Viking, 2000), 239.↩︎

  4. Light Fantastic 1, an exhibition of laser lights and holography, was presented in March 1977. It was followed in 1978 with Light Fantastic 2, presented by Guinness at the Royal Academy from 12 January to 27 March 1978. Both exhibitions were very popular with the public, with queues stretching way down Piccadilly. Sandy Boyle, Light Fantastic 2 (London: Bergstrom & Boyle Books, 1978).↩︎

  5. Neil R. Bingham, Masterworks, Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011), 34. Hugh Casson, Diary (London: Macmillan, 1981), Preface.↩︎

  6. John Russell, “Untitled”, The New York Times, 6 May 1983, C23. Dempsey, “Impressario of Art”. Manser, Hugh Casson, 240–242.↩︎

  7. Casson, Preface, Diary, 167. Casson points out that, unlike the national museums, the Academy received no insurance indemnity for its large exhibitions; it was applied for with each exhibition, not always successfully. In 1982, the Government gave £250,000 to the Royal Academy’s £6m public appeal for an endowment and repairs and improvements to its home at Burlington House.↩︎

  8. Citing Norman Rosenthal in Hugh Pearman, “It’s Show Time”, The Sunday Times, 11 September 1994, 12 [S8]. Views held by Rosenthal and Casson coincided: Manser, Hugh Casson, 269; Dempsey, “Impressario of Art”.↩︎

  9. Michael Billington, “Margaret Thatcher Casts a Long Shadow over Theatre and the Arts”, The Guardian, 9 April 2013. Thatcher believed that attracting audiences was essential to successful arts funding; she pointed to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s success at attracting audiences, and similarly admired the Royal Academy for its success at doing likewise. Both Casson and Thatcher saw themselves as innovators; on their mutual admiration, see Manser, Hugh Casson, 265.↩︎

  10. Chris Potter, “You’re Looking Great, Britain”, The Sun, 28 May 1980, 14.↩︎

  11. “Downbeat Daub”, The Financial Times, 2 June 1994, 21.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1980 catalogue