Photo: Getty Images, Tristan Fewings

Rebecca Salter: “The next few years are not going to be easy for any arts organisation”

The Royal Academy president on learning how to live with uncertainty
May 12, 2022

The office of Rebecca Salter, president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is a surprisingly small room with no natural light. On the walls Salter has hung artworks from the RA’s collection, as well as two of her own monochrome woodcut prints. “I also had a lovely Joshua Reynolds up here,” she tells me, pointing, “but they’ve snaffled that up and put it in the Collections Gallery.”

The room is not very glamorous, Salter admits, but then she isn’t often in it these days. Part of her role as the RA’s figurehead is getting out there and meeting people; she tells me she’s just come back from lunch with the lord mayors of Westminster and the City of London. Salter, 67, with short grey hair and a stylish dress sense, is something of a disarming presence. She has few of the airs that some of her predecessors are said to have displayed, all of whom were men.

“Within three weeks of closing, we began to see weeds sprouting up between the flagstones in the courtyard. There was just no footfall. I couldn’t believe it!”

Salter spent six years as a postgraduate in Japan, an experience that has informed her artistic career ever since; much of her work is made using Japanese woodcut techniques. She’s excited about the current show of 19th-century Japanese painter Kawanabe Kysai—a prime example of the RA not only putting on “blockbusters,” but showing people “things that they would never normally come across.”

The president, or PRA, is elected by the group of academicians, who are themselves elected by other academicians on their merits as artists and architects. Salter’s predecessor, the painter Christopher Le Brun, told Salter to keep her work as PRA “Monday to Wednesday,” and keep time to carry on practising as an artist. “Three days a week was briefly doable,” Salter says. Then coronavirus happened.

Salter was PRA for just six weeks before the RA was forced to shut during the first lockdown of March 2020. She recalls how she and Axel Rüger, the RA’s chief executive, “walked across the courtyard and thought, how long will this go on?”

“We knew it was absolutely essential that we looked after this organisation,” Salter says. “From March onwards, Axel and I cycled into the Academy every Saturday. Axel lives in Covent Garden, so it was alright for him. My cycle was a 13-mile round trip! 

“I brought in homemade cakes. We sat and had them with the security guards who were still rattling round this place.” Prior to lockdown, the RA was staging a Picasso exhibition: without visitors, the Academy essentially became a high-security art vault.

“I was about to tell you the most poignant thing,” Salter says. “Within three weeks of closing, we began to see weeds sprouting up between the flagstones in the courtyard. There was just no footfall. I couldn’t believe it!” she pauses. “I rather stupidly commented on it and, like Chinese whispers, rumours went round that the president was displeased with the weeds, when really I thought they were fabulous. I was sad because, by the week after, they were gone.”

I tell Salter that this all sounds like a trial by fire. “Having had a career as an artist for as long as I’ve had, you start to have an ability to live with a level of insecurity and uncertainty,” she says. “You never know where your next sale or exhibition is coming from.” 

The number of people we can see climbing the stairs from the window—off to see a Whistler exhibition—pays testament to how the Academy has managed to pick itself up again since permanently reopening last May. With this in mind, I ask Salter if she has any “grand vision” for the RA’s future.

“The next few years are not going to be easy for any arts organisation,” Salter says. “Grand visions and all that kind of stuff, well, I’m not sure it’s the time. It’s a time to consolidate and keep a clear focus… It’s about maintaining a level of resilience without being worn down. There’s a favourite Japanese quotation of mine, which goes: nana korobi, ya oki. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”