The Royal West of England Academy has been bringing world-class visual art to Bristol since 1844. Located in a spectacular Grade II* listed building in the heart of the city, the RWA is the UK’s only regional Academy of Art housed in its own, purpose-built gallery.

With the building having recently undergone a £4.1m transformation, opening up access for all, we asked the RWA team to share the story behind this historic arts venue.

RWA Bristol Exterior - Credit Evan Dawson
Image: Exterior of the RWA, credit Evan Dawson

The RWA’s history

The RWA building has seen a lot of change since first opening its doors to the public in 1858. It was founded by pioneering woman artist Ellen Sharples, who launched a fundraising campaign and persuaded individuals like Albert Prince Consort and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to support the project, ultimately creating Bristol's first public art gallery.

Thanks to Ellen’s influence, equality has been at the heart of the RWA from the outset. The first woman President was elected in 1911, long before any other British Royal Academy of Art even allowed women as full members. It is also believed to be the first place to offer parallel art training to women as to men, including allowing women to attend life drawing classes from the foundation in 1844.

Old picture of the exterior of the RWA Bristol - credit RWA Bristol
Image: Old image of the RWA 

Throughout the decades the building has also been occupied by various organisations, including the Bristol Aeroplane Company, the U.S. Army and Inland Revenue. It wasn't until 1950 that the building was returned to its original function. After this, great efforts were made to restore the building and improve the galleries.

Fundraising has again been a huge part of the RWA's recent transformation, creating a sustainable building that can welcome visitors for years to come and provide a space for everyone from all communities to find space to be themselves.

Largest renovation in over a century

Through the recent Light and Inspiration project, the RWA is transforming the experience for visitors and the communities they work with, thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other generous supporters. With improved building access and an exciting programme of events for all ages the RWA aims to become a community hub that provides extraordinary encounters with art, for everyone.

Exterior of the lift shaft at RWA Bristol with design by artist and sculptor Peter Randall-Page RA - credit Anne Purkiss
Image: The RWA's new large lift with design by artist and sculptor Peter Randall-Page RA, credit Anne Purkiss

The RWA warmly welcomes all visitors and has step-free access, a huge new lift that can carry four wheelchair users and their companions, a new wheelchair-accessible toilet and many other new facilities. It also has free-to-access spaces including a large Family Activity Space; a larger café with additional indoor seating as well as outdoor seating on the terrace and balcony; and a transformed forecourt which will be a vibrant outdoor, social events space to enjoy the summer days in this beautiful part of Bristol.

World-Class Art in Exceptional Spaces, for everyone

The RWA celebrated its reopening with a plethora of exhibitions and events, starting with the landmark exhibition; 'Me, Myself, I: Artists' Self-Portraits'. Taking place in its restored gallery spaces, the exhibition displayed over 80 works by major artists including Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin and Sonia Boyce. The exhibition provides historical context to today’s selfie culture, through an exploration of self-portraiture over the last three hundred years.

An exhibition at RWA Bristol in central Bristol - credit RWA Bristol
Image: An exhibition at the RWA

The lower ground floor will feature free community exhibitions to accompany the main exhibition, created by a group of individuals who are supported by weekly sessions of Art on Referral facilitated by the RWA’s Learning and Participation team.

Other new free-to-access spaces include The Kenny Gallery, a dedicated space featuring work by RWA Academicians, which can be accessed via the new lift without an exhibition ticket; the Shop, supporting independent sellers; and the Family Activity Space, a vibrant, creative space filled with interactive artworks, artist dress up costumes, creative materials, comfy seating and books for all to enjoy.

Events at the RWA

The RWA calendar is also full with events for everyone, whether it’s the regular family events including creative workshop Scribble and Sketch suitable for the whole family (free), the Family Heritage Trail to explore your visit around the gallery with free resources, the Junior Drawing School (running during school holidays), and exhibition related events running alongside each ticketed exhibition.

The family activity space at RWA Bristol - credit Alice Hendy
Image: The family activity space at the RWA, credit Alice Hendy

Regular access events include sensory workshops for families with children with SEN+D – Happy Mondays (free); A Familiarisation Tour for Visually Impaired adults (free); British Sign Language exhibition tour (free); and Tuesday Teatime Tours (free) suitable for people living with dementia and their companions. Find out what’s on at the RWA.

And with so much to explore, the new, larger cafe space operated by Bristol favourite Spicer + Cole can provide the perfect rest stop. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9:30am to 5pm, and 10am to 5pm on Sundays. 

The RWA is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. 

For more information and a calendar of events, visit the RWA website, and follow them on social media.

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