Royal Ulster Academy 1950 – 2009
After the war, in 1949, the Academy again held its annual exhibition in the Belfast Museum & Art Gallery, which was arranged by John Hewitt, then Keeper of Art, and opened by the sculptor Morris Harding, who was President from 1946 until 1957. In 1950, as part of the Festival of Britain of 1951, the Royal Prefix, was granted by King George VI, and the Academy acquired its present title, the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts. The Academy’s organisation has changed little since the instigation of “the Ulster Academy of Arts” in 1930. On Harding’s resignation, William Conor was elected President. The 1958 Annual Exhibition, held at the Belfast Museum, was severely pruned to thirty seven works to raise the standard of the exhibition which many members felt had disimproved during the previous decade. Following this exhibition the Academy exhibited in College Square. Wilfred Haughton became President in 1964 and continued until 1970 when Patric Stevenson took over the position for the next five years. There was no annual exhibition in either, 1971 and 1972, due to the increasing turbulence in Belfast and Patric Stevenson moved the Diploma Collection out of the Old Museum in College Square to the safety of the Shambles Gallery in Hillsborough, close to where he lived.
These events could well have dealt a fatal blow to the Royal Ulster Academy had not the Ulster Museum proved again to be a lasting friend and hosted the exhibition in 1973 after the approaches of Mercy Hunter, who became President in 1975 for two years. This practice continued during T.P.Flanagan’s presidency from 1977 – 1983 and through David Evans’ Presidency. When the Ulster Museum’s galleries were undergoing major refurbishment in the late 80s and early 90s, the annual exhibition was mounted at Queen’s University in the Department of Architecture’s building in Chlorine Gardens. During Rowel Friers Presidency from 1993 until 1997, the annual exhibition moved back to the Ulster Museum and attracted on average 14, 000 visitors, the largest number for any exhibition over its three week run. Throughout this period arrangements were energetically organised by the Academy’s Secretaries, Helen Falloon, Doreen Crockard and Harry Reid and works were sympathetically and skilfully hung by Anne Stewart, from the Museum’s Art Department with an innovative and well supported education programme, delivered by the Museum’s Education Department. This successful and seamless arrangement continued throughout the Presidencies of Richard Croft, Joe McWilliams and Carol Graham with welcome sponsorship from the Wellington Park Hotel and Audi (NI). When the Ulster Museum closed its doors in 2005 for major renovation, the Royal Ulster Academy was homeless again after a settled period when the quality and range of its exhibitions increased and the Academy’s finances consolidated.
A new venue was provided by the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG), with a very successful exhibition in 2006 of 292 works with 180 works from non–members, attracting record sales of 124 works and 8000 visitors over four weeks. The success of this exhibition was followed in 2007 in OBG with over 1000 entries and a new and invaluable three–year sponsorship from KPMG, arranged with the assistance of Arts and Business and an imaginative partnership proposal initiated by the RUA’s then honorary secretary, Mike McCann. Not only does this sponsorship allow the Academy develop an education programme but it has also resulted in “The KPMG Emerging Artist Award” of £1500 to a selected artist. 297 works were exhibited and 178 of these were from non–members.
A new exhibition venue had to be found again for 2008 and the newly elected President, Rita Duffy arranged the annual exhibition in Harland & Wolff’s Titanic Drawing Offices which were generously provided by Harcourt Developments. The RUA appointed its first fulltime Development Officer, Gail Richie, in June 2007 to develop the strategic plans of the RUA and to oversee all arrangements for their most important event, the Annual Exhibition. A newly designed, larger format catalogue was produced to appropriately represent the 516 works exhibited, including 25 invited artists and 387 works from non–members.
The Academy’s 128th Annual Exhibition, moved to 2 Donegall Street, the former Old Assembly Building which became the Northern Bank. This was made possible by the current owners, Dunloe Ewart, under the direction of the Academy’s new President, Julian Friers and Administrator, Irene Fitzgerald. The historic Northern Bank building with its downtown central location proved ideal. However as the exhibition space was smaller than the previous year fewer works were exhibited (304 in total) disappointing many artists who had submitted to the exhibition. In 2004, in his President’s foreword, Joe McWilliams recorded with regret that only 15% of the 550 open submission entries could be hung due to restrictions on space.
There are four components to the annual exhibition, works from members who submit two works each, works from invited artists, works by invited graduates from the University of Ulster and works selected from the open submissions of non members which include established and emerging talent. The relationship with the art college has been sustained from the early days of the Academy but strengthened by artists who exhibit with the Academy and who taught at the Belfast College, especially Bob Sloan, Neil Shawcross and Joe McWilliams and more recently by the introduction of an annual award from the Academy to a final year student. The more exhibition space available the more lively and varied the exhibition will be and as a consequence will attract even more submissions from throughout Ireland and further afield, continuing the practice initiated a hundred and twenty eight years ago by the Ramblers’ Sketching Club.
The Ulster Museum reopened in October 2009 after extensive renovations and the Royal Ulster Academy, with support from KPMG, will return there for its 129th Annual Exhibition, from 15th October until 14th November 2010, continuing a tradition initiated by Arthur Deane, eighty years ago in 1929. Whether the 2010 exhibition space will be able to accommodate 400 works, as it did in 1930 or the 519 works exhibited in 2008, will be of interest to members of the Royal Ulster Academy, its sponsors and patrons, the wider visual arts community and the public. In any event the Royal Ulster Academy is on the move.
1. For a detailed account see Martyn Anglesea “The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts: A Centennial History” 1981.
2. The Ulster Museum has a membership card belonging to ‘J.Haddon’ in its collection, ibid. M. Anglesea, p.9
3. Anthony Carey Stannus is represented in the collection of the Ulster Museum with two works ‘The Last of the Spanish Armada’ and ‘Lands End’, both, according to Martyn Anglesea, reminiscent of Turner.
4. ibid. pps. 42 & 62. See also ‘drawings paintings & sculptures the catalogue, edited by Eileen Black, MAGNI, Museums & Galleries of northern Ireland, 2000.
5. The Centenary Exhibition of the RUA exhibited in the Ulster Museum in 1981 included the Diploma Collection. A selection was shown in the Ulster Museum in 1995 as was a selection in the Glebe gallery, Churchill, Co. Donegal in 2006.