Zandra Rhodes backs protest against Royal College of Art ‘virtual’ degree show

By Ellen Halliday
March 30 2020, 09.00

Iconic fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes has criticised the Royal College of Art’s ‘virtual’ degree show plans.

Speaking from isolation in her penthouse, Dame Rhodes, 79, urged the London art and design university to delay its annual showcase of graduating students’ work rather than move it online because of coronavirus.

The RCA alumnus, who designed clothes for Princess Diana, emphasised the importance of self-isolation and social distancing to save lives but said that the physical exhibition was irreplaceable. 

Recalling her own degree show in 1964, she said: “It was the culmination of the work I had done as a student and is something I still refer to. 

“The students should fight for a delay. A virtual show is not the same thing.”

In the past, students have gained work and sought-after solo exhibitions as a result of the show, which often attracts more than 40,000 visitors.

Art by Frederik Nystrup-Larsen (RCA) and Oliver Sundqvist
Work by by Frederik Nystrup-Larsen (RCA) and Oliver Sundqvist. Credit: Eighteen Gallery and the artists.

Dame Zandra is one of the most prominent voices in a chorus of criticism that includes Turner-prize winning artist Mark Leckey and painter Peter Doig.

Almost 6,000 people have signed a student-led petition against the plans.

In an Instagram post, award-winning painter and RCA alumnus Tim Stoner said: “Denying this year’s artists the opportunity to experience what EVERY student in the past has done is cheating them out of one of the most important things the college offers.”

Contemporary art student Allan Gardner, 27, said: “I wouldn’t have done this course if the degree show wasn’t part of it.

“It is truly what you are working towards.”

Many galleries and museums, including London’s Natural History Museum and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, are offering culture-lovers the chance to visit virtual exhibitions whilst in self-isolation.

Yet painter Mr Gardner said in his personal opinion the online show was not an adequate solution for the RCA as fee-paying students unable to access to workshops, materials, or face-to-face tutorials as a result of coronavirus cannot create the work on which they are examined.

He said: “You could make a painting in your bedroom and put it on a website, but would you pay £10,000 to do it?

“It makes you feel like you’ve been taken advantage of.”

Contemporary art by student Allan Gardner
Work by Allan Gardner, a contemporary art student and painter at the RCA. Credit: Allan Gardner.

In a statement, the Royal College of Art said it had considered deferring the show until the autumn but rejected the idea, citing the logistical challenges and expenses this would cause to its international student body.

The statement said: “We had to re-think the format now rather than face inevitable disappointment down the road.”

It has also offered students a range of options including early graduation, online learning or course deferral.

Featured image: Zandra Rhodes, copyright Chris Bissell.

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