Joyce Cairns, an Edinburgh-born painter, has been elected as the first female president of the Royal Scottish Academy in 192 years. She brings to the role a wealth of experience and knowledge that comes from her career as a teacher, an exhibitor and an artist, as well as a supporter of emerging talent.
It is an unprecedented move for the RSA which has a long history promoting excellence in contemporary art and architecture, however, it has done this as a largely male-dominated structure. This momentous time for Joyce Cairns comes as her predecessor’s, Arthur Watson, tenure of six years has ended, and clearly will usher in some change for the RSA. As a corporation, it seems to be embracing the current mood to support women and give them deserved, merited positions in authority, although it is hard not to wonder whether this is too late and the Academy is scrambling to make up for lost time.
Cairns’ career makes it evident she has the expertise and professional experience to manage and direct the future of the Royal Scottish Academy. As a younger artist, prior to her relationship with the Academy, she led the Aberdeen Artist’s Society. On a smaller scale, this has much the same ambition as the Academy; that is to promote art and make Aberdeen culturally relevant, whilst embracing the next generation of talent through sponsorship and bursary programmes.
Prior to her assumption of the role, Arthur Watson championed the artist’s eye in his project, in the works for three and half years, ‘Ages of Wonders’. It was assembled not by curators but by artists. It is possible that as a pioneering woman herself, Cairns will change the configuration of the Academy and as such curate a different artistic landscape in Scotland. The Academicians are eminent leaders in their fields of art and architecture and are at the forefront of shaping new developments. As of the present, a list of RSA Academicians, elected between 1826 and the now, show 41 of 485 names to be female. It is plausible that, just as she supported Watson during his leadership to transform and modernise the Academy, she will push this change further from within. In relation to the composition of the membership, she may strive to make it more equal and emblematic of the modern age.
Cairns’ work is autobiographical and involves the blending of her memories from the past with her present experiences. It is this ability to look back and acknowledge history whilst at the same time pushing onwards and forwards to the future that will guide her in this position.
Illustration: Sophia Constantinou