First look inside Bristol’s oldest art gallery after huge £4.1million makeover

Bristol’s oldest gallery has reopened following a major multi-million pound refurbishment project to make the building more accessible.

Work began at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Clifton in May last year after three years of fundraising to fund the most significant development to the Grade II listed building in over a century. It reopened to the public on Bank Holiday Monday, May 2, after a nine-month £4.1million transformation to make the space safer and more accessible, without which the gallery could have faced permanent closure .

The initial planned costs of the ‘Light and Inspiration’ capital project were £3.8 million. But the Covid pandemic, supply chain delays and other unforeseen issues have driven costs up to £4.1m and the reopening, originally scheduled for January 2022, has been delayed by three months .

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Alison Bevan, Director of RWA, said: “RWA’s transformation has taken 20 years and is the biggest change to our building in over a century. Without this work, we would have run the risk of having to close our doors permanently.”

There have been major repairs to make the building safe, such as replacing the roof lanterns and building a bigger lift for wheelchair users, but it has also allowed the gallery to completely reinvent the spaces, creating an environment totally welcoming and accessible to all.

The gallery now offers a rest room for visitors with sensory issues or autism, a family activity space and an outdoor event space, as well as the installation of energy-efficient air-source heat pumps. It is also possible to gain free access to the galleries of the three floors for the first time.

Ms Bevan continued: ‘This has been a really difficult project with many challenges along the way and we couldn’t have done it without the support of some amazing national and local donors, as well as the generosity of the public in contributing to our recent Crowdfunding campaign to help us raise the last £100,000. We are very grateful to everyone who has supported us.”

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The building has been refurbished by the construction company Beard in partnership with the RWA and will allow them to welcome 40% more visitors per year. The RWA, which is an independent charity, will expand its community and wellbeing programs, enabling more people from underrepresented communities across Bristol to engage in art and creativity. Their new cafe, due to open later in May, will be run by local chain Spicer + Cole, whose owners have described the partnership as “the perfect fit” for them.

Speaking on the reopening, Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, added: “It is heartening to see RWA, one of Bristol’s most historic and culturally significant institutions, reopen and put sustainability at the forefront of its transformation. We are also delighted that they have signed up to the Bristol Climate Ask, furthering their commitment to helping Bristol reach net zero by 2030.”

The RWA has reopened with a landmark exhibition titled ‘Me, Myself, Me: Self-Portraits of Artists’, curated by internationally acclaimed, Bristol-based curator, artistic director and writer, Tessa Jackson OBE. The exhibition – which runs from May 2 to June 19 – brings historical context to today’s “selfie culture” with an illuminating insight into 300 years of self-portraiture.

There are over 80 classic and contemporary works of art on display from established artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman, Lucian Freud, Grayson Perry, Phoebe Boswell, Sonia Boyce, Tracey Emin, Tony Bevan and Antony Gormley.

The Royal West of England Academy is located at Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1PX

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