Light and Inspiration: Securing an exciting future for the RWA

With the ‘Light and Inspiration’ project, the RWA is poised to undergo its biggest transformation in more than a century. Director Alison Bevan reveals the exciting details, plus how you can support it…

Housed in an outstanding, Grade II* listed building, the RWA has an extraordinary heritage.  Founded in 1844 as the Bristol Academy of Fine Art, we opened in 1858, making us Bristol’s first public art gallery, and one of the oldest in Britain.  We are also the UK’s only Royal Academy operating from its original, purpose-built building.

We’re now poised to deliver our most significant capital project for over a century, designed to deal with the issues of an aging building – and one designed in a very different age.  A 2015 Quinquennial Review identified that the huge roof lanterns (skylights) above the main gallery spaces needed urgent repair, which, due to their height and scale, would be hugely expensive, and would necessitate lengthy closure of the galleries.

Whilst these lanterns provide the galleries with their extraordinary quality of light, they also cause it to suffer enormous fluctuations in temperature, from >37˚ in summer to <11˚ in winter.  Consequently, plans were drawn up to replace them with improved, thermally-insulated and ventilated lanterns.

Alongside this, it is essential to the RWA’s survival for it to attract more people into the building, and deliver sustainable income.  An independent Charity with less than 1.5% of operating costs covered by public subsidy (a £9600 annual from Bristol City Council), this took on a new urgency following the financial impact of Covid-19.

Whilst our facade is beautiful, it is also forbidding, and passers-by often think it is part of the University or a private members’ club, unaware of the uplifting beauty they’ll find within.  A wider project has therefore been developed to transform the way people are welcomed into the building.

‘Light and Inspiration’ is a £3.8 million project, scheduled for June to December 2021, which will:

  • Replace the roof lanterns above the main galleries with new thermally-insulated skylights, enabling the world’s finest artworks to be seen in Bristol’s stunning, purpose-built gallery
  • Mitigate extreme temperatures, from sweltering summer heat to icy cold, vastly improving the experience for visitors and volunteers
  • Provide disabled people with unaided access to all galleries for the first time through the creation of a capacious new lift
  • Sensitively remodel the façade, with new entrances and lighting to engage more visitors and create a truly welcoming environment
  • Transform the forlorn forecourt into a vibrant outdoor creative, social events space
  • Enlarge the cafe, retail and greeting spaces
  • Extend RWA’s celebrated community and wellbeing programmes so more vulnerable and isolated people can find enjoyment through art and creativity
  • Deliver a step-change in financial and environmental sustainability.

The designs, drawn up by appointed architects Childs + Sulzmann, have recently received Planning and Listed Building consents.


The project received Round 1 funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) in 2019 to develop the project, and as this goes to print, we’re awaiting the outcome of our Round 2 application for a further £1.3M.  In addition, funding has been secured from Arts Council England, the John James Bristol Foundation, Foyle Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, the Linbury Trust, Nisbet Trust, Wolfson Foundation and others.  If the NLHF application is successful, there is a little over £400,000 remaining to be raised of the £3.8M budget, and a public campaign will be launched later this year.

Tthe Light and Inspiration project has always been about our long-term sustainability. After lockdown, it is now about our very survival. We know that everyone visiting our extraordinary building finds it uplifting, and our aim is that every visitor leaves feeling better than when they came in, having been inspired and made to feel welcome.

I truly believe that the RWA has all the makings of one of THE great galleries, and hope that we are able to keep bringing great art to Bristol for many generations to come.


More information about the Light and Inspiration project and how you can support it can be found here.


The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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