A quick chat with...Charles Saumarez Smith

in this series, paintings in hospitals director ben pearce chats with leaders in the culture and care sectors to discover more about their inspiration, influences, and the future of arts in health. this week: Charles Saumarez Smith.

 

Who are you, what do you do, and why do you do it?

I'm the Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, a long-winded title, but I try always to use both parts because it correctly expresses the duality of the role: as Secretary, I am answerable to the Council and President for the running of the organisation; as Chief Executive, I oversee all aspects of it. I've been doing the job for nearly nine years. I like it because of its connections to contemporary art, and particularly artists, as well as its role as a place for major exhibitions.

 

You have worked for some of our greatest museums and galleries, what do you see as their main contribution to the nation?

Before the Royal Academy, I worked for the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, the latter two as Director. They are funded by national government to look after different aspects of the national collection and all have immense numbers of visitors. I think their biggest contribution is in terms of their display and interpretation of works of art in their permanent collections, more than their exhibitions. But they're also important in the ways in which they contribute to cultural tourism.

 

We have worked with a number of galleries and museums to take hidden parts of their collections out on tour to health and social care sites. In general, should museums and galleries do more to have their collections seen by the wider public? 

I think most museums and galleries do what they can in terms of lending works, particularly to exhibitions. But I'm interested that the V&A is considering re-opening its Circulation Department which was founded, I think, when the Museum itself was founded to tour works of art around the country to art schools, schools and public libraries. It's an old idea, but a good one.

 

Crowds of visitors to see David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the RA, 2012.

 

We believe that experiencing visual art improves people’s wellbeing. What has been your experience of this?  Can it really make a difference? 

I'm very interested by the huge numbers of people who want to see the RA's exhibitions. Over 600,000 people came to see the David Hockney exhibition and I remember the mood of happy euphoria which accompanied it, as if people benefitted from the psychological boost derived of seeing the Yorkshire Wolds through David Hockney's eyes. We also do a lot of work with underprivileged groups who draw and paint their own works inspired by our exhibitions.

 

The end of 2018 will mark two important milestones: the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy and the beginning of our own 60th birthday celebrations –  as we look back and celebrate these histories, what do you see changing in the art world in the following decade? 

I'm currently a bit nervous because London, in particular, has enjoyed three decades of such economic and cultural boom (the two go together) as a result of its art schools, the development of studios and art galleries in the east end, and, perhaps most of all, the sense of it being a cultural melting pot. But the environment for good quality art practice is vulnerable and may be the result of accident, more than investment. There is at least a risk that Brexit will make London less attractive and less outward looking. I hope not.

 

Charles and Ben are both on Twitter: @CSaumarezSmith, @HighStreetBen

Visit charlessaumarezsmith.com to find out more about Charles and check out his brilliant blog. 

Header image: the image of Charles used in the article header is an edit of a pencil work by artist John Lessore. The original drawing can be seen on Charles's blog here. © National Portrait Gallery, John Lessore.

Interview