Light and Inspiration Capital Project

Light and Inspiration – Transforming the RWA (Royal West of England Academy)

The RWA is an outstanding heritage asset: Britain’s only regional Royal Academy of Art, housed in a stunning, purpose-built Grade II* building.  Inclusivity is enshrined in our values, promoting gender and social equality since 1844, and pioneering wellbeing programmes since 2013.

Our future is threatened by an urgent need to repair the gallery’s vast roof lanterns (skylights) and the necessity to deliver sustainable income to maintain the building in its original use.

The Light and Inspiration project will:

  • Save the RWA from catastrophic closure from collapsing roof lanterns
  • Transform access and visitor welcome to engage new and wider audiences
  • Preserve the exceptional quality of the galleries
  • Improve the visitor experience from first glimpse
  • Decrease maintenance and environmental costs
  • Strengthen financial resilience through increased visitor numbers
  • Extend inspirational community engagement

We will do this by:

  • Installing new, thermally-controlled roof lanterns to mitigate extreme summer heat
  • Renovating the forlorn forecourt to provide a vibrant outdoor social space
  • Opening up the austere facade to signal a welcome for all
  • Upgrading outdated fittings, including the dysfunctional 1913 lift
  • Enhancing cafe, retail and greeting spaces
  • Building on our longstanding core work, supporting wellbeing for disadvantaged individuals and communities across Bristol and beyond.

The project comprises:

Replacement roof lanterns

New roof lanterns, retaining the existing form but with modern thermally-insulated glazing and ventilation, along with modification of the roof structure to provide for the additional load of new roof lanterns, will prevent catastrophic failure of the roof, building and loss of the Collection.  It will regulate temperatures in the galleries, enabling retention of Government Indemnity Status (GIS) and thus the RWA’s ability to borrow and exhibit important works of art from national galleries while vastly improving the visitor and volunteer experience.

Repairs and redecoration

While the scaffolding is in place, repairs to the building’s windows, roof and chimneys will be undertaken.   Work to overhaul the heating system, the replacement and upgrading of pipework and replacement of antiquated lighting systems in the main galleries will also take advantage of the building’s closure period.

Visitor engagement works

Aimed at increasing engagement and widening audiences, the building’s prominent forecourt will be landscaped to provide a welcoming, beautiful and functional access route, signalling the all-inclusive accessibility of the RWA.  By creating an outdoor community space that complements the façade, able to be used by the miniscule café as additional, alfresco seating and for social activities, we will offer an introductory route for new audiences. 

By lowering the ground floor windows to pavement level, flooding the interior with light we will attract visitors by enabling passers-by to see activity in the building.  Combined with a refurbishment of the foyer area to include new welcome, orientation and retail space, with better lighting, improving the intuitive flow and enabling the space to be used as more than a corridor will aid in encouraging new audiences to venture into the building.  Replacement of the 1913 lift car, with its heavy, manually-operated doors, by a modern lift car will greatly improve access inside the building for people with mobility issues.

Engagement Activity

Through a programme of engagement activity, we will work to engage new audiences, providing skills, work experience and qualifications for young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Alongside this, we will use the outdoor forecourt space which will play host to Summer Family Fun and other learning activities.  Through this work, our visitor numbers are projected to rise from 45,000 to 60,000 per year.

A stimulating programme of exhibitions, on and off site, is planned which will tour works from the Collection to regional and local venues during the course of the project.  Our existing pool of 110 volunteers will be widened to include people from diverse backgrounds, who will receive training, work experience and social opportunities.  We also aim to extend our current Scribble and Sketch family workshops, currently held in Easton, to two further areas of multiple deprivation.

Why is Light and Inspiration so important?

Undertaking the Light and Inspiration project is imperative.  The building and future viability of the RWA are at risk – the need for work to the roof lanterns was identified three years ago in 2015 in our Quinquennial Review.

Replacing the lanterns will address the severe fluctuations in temperature, which create conservation risks for the art.  These environmental instabilities threaten our GIS approved status, necessary for borrowing important works of art and to our income. Extreme temperatures cause discomfort, impacting on attendance, education work, space hire and volunteer support.  The age and condition of the lift, pipework and lighting carry inherent risk of failure, as well as adding to running costs.  The lift failed twice in 2018 and again this year and is increasingly difficult to maintain.

As a charity receiving less than 1.5% of core income from public subsidy and no unrestricted reserves, the RWA’s survival depends on audience development and revenue generation.  Research in 2016 echoed previous studies identifying a lack of awareness about the building’s purpose, an absence of ‘kerb appeal’ and the daunting and intimidating grandeur of the façade as the most significant barriers to engagement, along with physical access issues. Being able to continue to exhibit historic works of art, as well as developing a more welcoming forecourt, façade and foyer are therefore essential to the RWA’s ability to continue using the building for its original purpose.

About the RWA​

The RWA building opened its doors in 1858 and celebrated its 160th anniversary last year.  The Charitable Objects are "to advance the education of the public in the fine arts and, in particular, to promote the appreciation and practice of the fine arts and to encourage and develop talent in the fine arts" and our vision is “To be the South West’s leading centre for the exhibition, exploration and practice of the visual arts, valued as a place that enriches and nourishes the lives of people from all communities and backgrounds.”

The RWA is one of the UK’s five Royal Academies and is the only regional example, and the only one operating in its own, purpose-built gallery.  The exhibition spaces are acclaimed as being truly outstanding, leading the RWA to be described by Sir Nicholas Serota (Chair, Arts Council) as one of the most beautiful galleries in the country.

As an Academy, the RWA has a broader role – to promote the practice of art, which we do through Bristol School of Art, the RWA Drawing School and through our extensive Learning and Participation programme, working with schools and young people, both at the RWA and in areas of multiple deprivation in Bristol, inspiring families with art and creativity.

Costs and timings

The project will cost £3.3m to deliver.  Robust cost estimates have been obtained for the works to the roof and roof lanterns, and Listed Building Consent is in place for this and for the development of the forecourt and façade.

The capital works are currently planned to take place in 2021.

We are immensely grateful to the John James Bristol Foundation; The Nisbet Trust; Linbury Trust; Foyle Foundation; Bristol Port Company, and Jeremy and John Sacher Charitable Trust, for their commitments of support for this project.

If you would like to discuss how you can help us to make this happen, please contact Kate Foster, Head of Development (