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Thursday24 July 2014

News Analysis

RIBA's Harry Rich pins hopes on fundraising

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A year on from his appointment, RIBA chief executive Harry Rich is full of plans but refuses to be drawn on details, as Ruth Bloomfield discovers.

Carefully ranged on the smoked glass tables in the lobby of the RIBA’s headquarters are piles of glossy brochures advertising its winter programme of talks and exhibitions. It is possible the booklets will become collectors’ items one day: they are the last the RIBA Trust will ever publish.

The man who controversially beheaded the trust is Harry Rich, the RIBA’s chief executive. He believes streamlining operations by absorbing RIBA’s cultural arm into the main organisation will mean fewer talking-shop meetings and more time spent achieving his three key priorities for 2011.

On paper, his plans sound marvellous: to work for members, to use the RIBA’s amazing collections to their best advantage, and to promote architecture to the world at large.

The problem is that a year into his tenure these plans are still very much on paper. Rich, for example, wants the RIBA to become a much bigger player in the cultural landscape, putting on ever more ambitious events to promote the profession. But bigger and better doesn’t come cheap, and it’s hard to imagine where extra cash is going to be found in these recessionary times.

Nonetheless, Rich talks optimistically of raising “numbers of millions of pounds” to enhance the public programme. “What I want to do is to be much, much more ambitious about fundraising. We need to up our game,” he says.

Rich will look to private donors, charitable trusts and commercial sponsors, in the UK and crucially in the USA. A toe has already been dipped in the transatlantic waters with a touring exhibition on Palladio which visited Washington, New York and Pittsburgh in September. It attracted an audience including former first lady Laura Bush.

Plans for a fundraising drive are currently being shaped, but expect to see the RIBA’s top brass – including the president, Ruth Reed – on a major schmoozing mission stateside in 2011. “Cultured and wealthy Americans just love the idea of the RIBA,” he says.

Rich arrived at the RIBA in June 2009 at an enormously trying time: the recession was biting, firms were going to the wall or shedding staff, young architects were struggling to find work or being offered minuscule salaries after years of training. He believes a key failing in the profession is an inability to cheerlead about the value an architect can bring to a project.

To this end, 2011 will be a year of evidence gathering – both anecdotal (from satisfied clients) and statistical – to prove exactly why an architect is worth having. Exactly how this evidence will look, and how it will work, is unclear: as with most of his plans, Rich cautions that it is “early days” and the project has only just been commissioned.

Another “jam tomorrow” scheme is a new piece of market research that will look at how the public, and business, view architects. This, Rich suspects, could make painful reading.

“There needs to be a paradigm shift in how architects communicate with the world,” he says. “If you went out on the street and asked 20 people if they care about architecture, most of them would say ’no’.

“If you asked them if they cared about the place they live, where their children go to school, it would be very different. We have got to be able to talk the language of the people, without dumbing down. We have to start talking straight language.”

Disappointingly, Rich doubts this particular piece of research will ever be published, describing it as a tool for the RIBA to use to shape its own work.

All this research and evidence gathering sounds fine in principle, but what, one wonders, is actually going to be achieved in 2011 by the new, lean and mean RIBA?

One concrete plan is to augment its already exhaustive awards system with a new prize, to be given to a building in the years after it has opened. It will be judged by those who use it – the pupils using a new school building, the residents of a new block of flats – and will be based on how the new building has added value to their lives.

It hardly sounds like a rival to the Stirling, but Rich hopes it will help with his mission to make the public understand exactly what an architect brings to the party.

Other than that Rich draws rather a blank, saying he doesn’t want to pre-empt the results of all his research. But he concedes that the coming 12 months will be crucial in his tenure.

“In any organisation you have to work out what you want to achieve before you can start to act on it,” he said. “We have set out our aspirations. Now we have to deliver.”

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