How the Royal Academy Schools shook off their fusty image

The Art Newspaper | Ben Luke

Once seen as a bastion of tradition ignored by young artists, the institution’s postgraduate fine art course has become the most desirable in London. London art colleges were at the centre of the 1990s boom in contemporary British art. Famously, Goldsmiths College was the crucible for the feisty, ambitious artists led by Damien Hirst, like Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume. The Royal College of Art—where Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili, among others, studied—and the Slade School, whose alumni include Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon and Martin Creed, were also influential. One course that seemed distant from the energy that ignited that era was the Royal Academy Schools. Rightly or wrongly, many saw it as the educational equivalent of the Summer Exhibition that has always provided its funding: quaint, living in the past, a bastion for traditional disciplines that ignored new media.

While the Summer Exhibition remains stubbornly the same (despite the best efforts of contemporary artists charged with enlivening it), the reputation of the Schools has been transformed. It provides one of the UK’s most diverse postgraduate courses, with a steady stream of artists gaining speedy art-world attention. Painting remains strong, but now canvases are surrounded by performances and video installations. To take a smattering of students from one year group alone, Eddie Peake’s performances, Prem Sahib’s spare but thematically rich sculptures and installations and Sophie Michael’s colourfully enchanting film works have all gained recognition from museums. A key factor is the wider educational environment, in which tuition fees have soared since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition won power in 2010; the Schools is free to attend, and students get bursaries to support their living costs…read more

Image: The Watershow Extravaganza (2016), a film by Sophie Michael, demonstrates the breadth of disciplines explored in the Schools’ postgraduate course