Let's hope the RSA elections are about issues


In what appeared to be a thinly veiled endorsement of UKIP, Norman Tebbit suggested this morning that the public might show their disgust at the MPs’ expenses saga by voting for minority parties. In the RSA we have our own elections. Our Council elections should be an opportunity to debate key questions about the future of the Fellowship.

Last night I joined a panel of speakers at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Central Saint Martins.  I was rather daunted as the subject was art and design education – not something on which I am an expert (although I am learning).  In fact, as I told a somewhat startled audience, I could think of only one link between me and St Martin's:  it was while one my girlfriends was attending its foundation course in the early 80s that she chucked me for a boy called Julian, who had electric blue hair.  As she told me at the time, she had come to the conclusion that everything about me was irredeemably uncool – a charge my two sons will confirm has stood the test of time.

Along with Deborah Dawton, Chief Executive of the Design Business Association, the other panellist was Charles Saumarez Smith, the charming and erudite Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, which, he graciously reminded me, was created by the RSA.

The last question posed by the audience was directed both to Charles and me.  ‘What’, we were asked, ‘are the pros and cons of modernising a long established institution as against creating something brand new?’  Charles gave an elegant answer emphasising the importance of history, but he also agreed with me that sometimes the weight of tradition can get in the way of innovation.

This got me to thinking about the elections to our new Fellowship Council, the body charged with representing the interests of Fellows, strengthening the synergies between the RSA and the Fellowship, and helping to shape a more ambitious model for Fellowship activity. Nominations are now open and the elections are in June and July.

Turnout in elections for Trustees has been very low in the past and there it is possible the elections to the new Council are contested on the sole basis of who has the highest profile.  But I hope the elections will be the opportunity for substantive debate inside the Fellowship. RSA staff will, of course, remain impartial, but I think it is legitimate for me to lay out what I see as some of the big issues, and where I personally stand on them.

• Inward versus outward looking

Is the Fellowship largely about providing social and educational activities to the Fellows, or is it about looking outwards and exploring how Fellows can help deliver our charitable mission in society?   

• Regional order versus bottom up organisation

Should the Regional committees effectively act as the sovereign body for activities in their part of the country, with the expectation that any Fellowship activity is organised by and through them, or should we facilitate Fellows to organise in whatever way works best for them, including on a city or a local issue level?

• Tradition versus innovation

Should the model of Fellowship organisation be based on the traditional model of committees, elected officers and close adherence to long established rules, or should the RSA at every level be encouraging new forms of engagement, from on-line social networking to open space events to local collaborations?

• Stand off or mutual accountability

Should we accept that the RSA nationally and the RSA locally have very different agendas and styles of operating, or should we be aiming for HQ to be much more accountable for engaging Fellows in its activities and programmes, while also challenging regional and local groups to get better at engaging Fellows and making an impact? 

In preferring the latter in each of these pairs I am aware that the choices are not always as clear cut and that the way I have described the issues probably favours my view. But my big hope is not that Fellows will agree with me, it is that we use these elections to provoke a lively debate about the kind of Fellowship we want, and as a way of finding a new generation of active Fellows (whether or not they agree with yours truly).

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