Celebrate! 50 Years of the Royal Charter and 180 Years of the RCA

Today, the Royal College of Art takes a moment to celebrate not only the 180th anniversary of its founding, but also the 50th anniversary of its Royal Charter and the granting of university status.

And we are in a position to celebrate in style, rated the world’s number one art and design university by the global benchmark of educational excellence – the QS World University Rankings – and embarking on new programmes, research and facilities that will enable us to continue to train artists and designers for the twenty-first century.

Anniversaries present an appropriate moment to ponder past and future directions. This august institution, known variously to its alumni as 'the RCA', ‘the College’, or occasionally ‘the Royal’, has characterised itself – from its founding to the present day – as a vibrant, mixed community of artists and designers, sharing discourse and discoveries, intelligence and innovation. From Christopher Dresser to Christopher Bailey, Enid Marx to Emma Jane Shipley, David Hockney to Hurvin Anderson, our artists and designers have led innovation and defined culture.

It’s a good time to ask, ‘What makes the Royal College of Art unique?’ Is it the concentration of people, a temporary chemical composition of relationships, the happenstance of a shared location? Or is it defined by a look, an attitude, a reputation? Is it David Hockney with bleached blonde hair graduating in a gold lamé jacket, or Roland Lamb entirely rethinking the creation of digital music? Perhaps an art and design university coalesces around a shared idea of itself: the transfer of knowledge, experience and insight – acquired, invented and accumulated – from one generation to another?

As Professor Juan Cruz, Dean of Arts & Humanities, observes: ‘Students here develop their work in depth, alongside other artists with shared interests and vocabularies, so we see very particular medium- and practice-based approaches develop in the various programmes. It’s important to expose those practices and approaches to each other, so that our students learn both from those who are close to them and also from those who provide a more distant and critical perspective on the foundations of their work. This generates a particular kind of alertness in our students, which they learn from trying to understand positions that are unfamiliar to them, and which informs their sense of what it means to be an artist or designer now.’

The RCA – from its foundation as the Government School of Design at the crowning point of the industrial revolution, preparing designers for industry, to its renaming by Queen Victoria in 1896 and redesignation as a training school for artists and educators – has been the embodiment of changing ideas about the social purpose of art and design, and how to educate the artists and designers of the future. This is our institutional inheritance: a detailed examination of the history of the College reveals that it has been blown along strategically by the unpredictable winds of industrial innovation, social and government policy, and cultural mores.

The invention that we celebrate comes with the artists, designers, curators, engineers, theorists who are selected to study at the College, the development of thinking, haptic skills, and a collaborative outlook that turns individuals into communities and networks. These are the territories that those who know the College will recognise ­– the transmission of information, the transformation of disciplinary boundaries and belief systems, and the subtle alchemy of creative endeavour and its capacity to transform people, objects, processes, social structures, cultures.

Perhaps the RCA is best defined as a condition of learning, of being curious, remaining open to discourse and discovery, to a multiplicity of conversations expressing thinking from the personal to the cultural to the political, communicating and responding to each other in a way that feels generative and progressive. Perhaps that is how the artists and designers of the future are trained.

Paul Thompson Vice-Chancellor of the RCA, comments, ‘The RCA promotes a progressive, contemporary and global pedagogy, where teaching is informed by the research questions posed by our eminent faculty and researchers. Our curricula evolve rapidly, one step ahead of the new dominant technologies, cultural and economic disruptions that will shape the mid-twenty-first century.’