As the Royal Academy of Arts in London approached its 250th anniversary, it launched a campaign to fund the biggest redevelopment in its history. Here’s how it got done.

The opening weekend of the new RA, which was redeveloped with £12.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and more than £43 million from trusts, foundations and individual donors.

Ahead of his appearance at Culture Business Canberra, the Royal Academy of Arts’ Will Dallimore spoke to F&P about the rigorous process of securing the first £12.7m, making it easier to say yes and creating a powerful rallying cry.

A UK newspaper described the Royal Academy as “art’s most ‘establishment’ yet eccentric institution”. How do you describe the Royal Academy?

The Royal Academy is a fascinating, complex and rather multifarious organisation – and undoubtedly richer for it. It is a major visitor attraction, with more than a million people visiting its world-class temporary exhibitions each year. At the same time, it is a highly respected independent school of contemporary art, where 50 or so postgraduate students develop their practice over three years, completely free of tuition fees. It is also a kind of representative body for artists and architects – and it’s surely the foremost cultural institution in the world led by artists and architects. And, it has always been a place of impassioned conversations and debates about art and visual culture. Pinning down its essence is not that straightforward but, vitally, it still adheres to the task it was set when it was founded in 1768, which is to promote the practice, understanding and public appreciation of art in Britain.

I would say that its primary defining characteristic is being led by eminent artists and architects, the Royal Academicians, who these days include David Hockney, Tracey Emin, Richard Rogers, David Adjaye and so on. In many ways, the artists are to the RA, what a collection usually is to an organisation. They are the Academy’s greatest asset. They give the organisation its colour and its life – all of which means that it feels more like a living thing than a museum. As for being the ‘establishment’, I’ve heard Royal Academicians say that upon becoming Royal Academicians they feared that they were joining the establishment, only to discover a hotbed of radicals.

Façade of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens. The acquisition, refurbishment and linking of this neighbouring building has given the RA 70% more public space.

The Royal Academy has recently undergone the biggest redevelopment in its history. Tell us a little about the reasons behind that and the ‘new RA’.

The core vision behind the redevelopment is to ‘open up’ the Academy and engage more people with our mission. The RA has been famous for its temporary exhibitions for over a century, but sadly many other important facets of its work have, until now, been lesser known because they have been somewhat invisible to the public. The acquisition, refurbishment and linking of a very large neighbouring building – 6 Burlington Gardens, which was originally the headquarters of the University of London – has provided the RA with 70% more public space to address this.

Core to the new RA is a series of new free galleries which display historic treasures from our Collection, and showcase works by today’s Royal Academicians and by current students at our art school. Some of these new galleries form part of the journey between the two buildings, so simply by walking around the new RA visitors can now develop a much better sense of who and what we are, and what we do. With these new galleries being free, we hope that we will attract new visitors to sample the Academy, who might then try other aspects of our offer.

A new suite of temporary exhibition galleries further strengthens our exhibitions offer for paying audiences. Alongside improved visitor facilities generally there are brand new spaces for eating, drinking and shopping, and the building also enables a very significant expansion of both our free and paid learning programmes. One of the most spectacular aspects of the new RA is a very grand 260-seat lecture theatre, which will provide a new home for conversations and debates about art in the heart of London.

So, while there are many spaces and experiences that are new, fundamentally the redevelopment enables us to do more of what we were set up to do – to promote the practice, understanding and public appreciation of art. Our 250th anniversary this year has been a really important catalyst for the entire project – if you like, the whole redevelopment is about getting the Academy ready to embark on its next 250 years.

A 260-seat lecture theatre will provide a new home for conversations and debates about art in the heart of London.

The project was supported by a grant of £12.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Can you tell us about how that relationship evolved and the grant itself.

We had to go through a rigorous, two-stage process to secure funding from the HLF – which is appropriate given that we’re talking about a significant amount of state-administered funding. Success at the first stage unlocked just under £0.5m to fund the research and development of a full proposal for consideration in the second round. The latter included not only detailed proposals for the capital side – covering architectural design, budget, project and risk management, procurement and sustainability strategies etc. – but also a bespoke ‘activity plan’ documenting exactly how the new spaces would be used, which audiences we would seek to engage and how we would do this through a variety of activities, initiatives and events; strategies for interpretation, training and volunteering, digital engagement and how we would ensure a long-term legacy for the project.

Following the successful award of the project, the HLF assigned a dedicated grant officer and two independent monitors who have met with us quarterly over the course of the whole project (2013-the present) to review our progress on both the capital and activity side. The monitors are there to ensure that we honour the commitments made in our proposals, but they have also provided great encouragement and advice.

HLF grants are drawn down progressively by mutual agreement and submission of invoices. Typically, HLF will hold back the final 5-10% of the grant until successful completion of the final evaluation of the project – which is what we’re gearing up for now.

The project cost £56 million, how was the rest of the redevelopment funded?

The Heritage Lottery Fund contributed £12.7m, but without doubt the securing of this grant helped unlock the remainder of the funds we needed to make the project happen. Put simply, once we had satisfied the rigours of the HLF, other donors found it much easier to say ‘yes’. Of the remaining funds, 55% came from other trusts and foundations, and 45% came from individual donors. Gifts at individual level ranged from £100k to the multi-million pound level. Towards the end of the campaign, we also raised around £3m from a public appeal. The latter brought in contributions at a variety of levels from smaller gifts through onsite donation boxes and ‘bolt-ons’ to existing transactions, to larger gifts through sponsorship of seats in our new lecture theatre and opportunities to ‘adopt a work’ from our Collection.

Charities in Australia always hear the phrase ‘tell your story’. How did you communicate your story with donors and prospects?

Yes, storytelling is really important – as is being very clear about why our redevelopment really mattered. I think it’s easy with a capital project to get hung up on describing the spaces – their architecture, their design and their fabric – but it’s really important to bring the focus back to the impact the spaces will have. This is certainly also true when it comes to communicating the project more widely to the press and to the public. What matters is not that we are opening a new building, but what kinds of new opportunities and experiences for visitors are enabled by it.

Our most successful tool for donors and prospects, and indeed with broader audiences, was a two-minute video which firmly linked our redevelopment to the enhancement, in our 250th anniversary year, of our founding artists’ vision of what the Academy should always be. That put heart into it and made it an effective rallying cry to be part of something very special, indeed historic.

The Vaults, which lie hidden beneath the Main Galleries, provide a link between the two sites, Burlington House and the recently acquired Burlington Gardens.

The Royal Academy does not receive revenue funding from the government and relies on the support of visitors, donors, sponsors, and the ‘Friends of the Royal Academy’, a template for other arts institutions around the world. Clearly donor management is key to your organisation. What is your philosophy on supporter engagement and donor management, and what are some of the strategies to support that philosophy?

As you would expect, donor management is generally handled by my colleagues in the Development team, who are expert at stewarding relationships with high-level individual donors, with trusts and foundations, and with corporates. Deep understanding of donors’ motivations, and building long-term relationships based on trust are obviously key to this. As Director of Public Engagement with responsibility for the marcomms function, my team mainly looks after the ‘mass supporter’ end of the spectrum, managing regular communications with the 100,000 Friends of the Royal Academy, and with the public.

What’s become apparent to me over the past five or so years, is that mission, impact and the difference we make have become ever more important considerations when thinking about stakeholders at all levels. For donors, a compelling story about why what we do matters can often be part of the answer to ‘why should I give?’. For Friends and the public, the same narrative can help these audiences feel more invested and ultimately shift the relationship from a purely transactional one based on access, to a more emotional (and hopefully more loyal) one based on brand affinity and love for ‘what we stand for’. With this in mind, and with the shift towards an ‘always on’ approach to fundraising, across all channels at all times, it’s probably more important than ever that fundraising and marcomms teams are on the same page in the way they think about and articulate the difference we make as organisations.

Will Dallimore is the Director of Public Engagement at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Will is speaking at Culture Business Canberra on the topic ‘Building Trust: Donor management & the new Royal Academy’.

Culture Business is the leading conference for fundraising in the arts. Culture Business tackles the big questions facing arts fundraisers today, focusing on philanthropy, corporate sponsorship, organisational structure and new revenue streams to provide fundraisers with the tools to take their fundraising to the next level. 

Culture Business Canberra takes place on 20 – 22 November 2018.

Check out the program here.

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