The Royal Hibernian Academy originated when artists from the Society of Artists in Ireland petitioned the then Viceroy, Earl Talbot, in the late 1700s for the opportunity to exhibit their works annually. A Royal Charter was finally granted in 1821, and the deeds received in 1823, giving the Academy independence from all other institutions. Celebrated landscape painter William Ashford served as the first President. Artist, Abigail O’Brien is currently the 24th President of the RHA, which is made up of 30 Members, 15 Senior Members and 10 Associate Members, all of whom are professional artists. The disciplines of Architecture, Painting, Sculpture and Print (including Photography) are all represented by the Academy’s broad national membership.
In 1825 Francis Johnson, the esteemed Georgian architect and second President, endowed the Academy with a house and Exhibition Gallery in Lower Abbey Street, which was subsequently destroyed by fire during the Easter Rising of 1916. J.M. Kavanagh, the Keeper at the time, managed to leave the burning building with the Charter and some bank records, but the entire Annual Exhibition of that year, other work and many other records were lost. The Academy was without a permanent premises until 1939, when it acquired the house and garden of 15 Ely Place.
In the interim the Annual Exhibitions were held either in the Metropolitan School of Art or in the National Gallery. In January 1970 Matthew Gallagher of the Gallagher Group offered to provide the RHA with a complete gallery on the site at Ely Place. Designed by Raymond McGrath RHA, the new building was completed by Dr. Arthur Gibney PPRHA, and finally opened to the public in 1985 for the 156th Annual Exhibition, the first the RHA could hold on their own premises in 69 years.
Today the RHA is an artist-led organisation, a 32-county body with charitable status. Its core remit is to support contemporary art and artists in Ireland through exhibition, education and advocacy. The Exhibitions programme also brings significant contemporary international art to Irish audiences. The RHA Ashford Gallery encourages young artists not already showing with a commercial gallery. The RHA administers a significant prize fund at its Annual Exhibition as well as two generous travel bursaries and runs extensive Education and Friends programmes. In its Gallagher Gallery, located in the centre of Dublin, it hosts many events both cultural and corporate. This combination of history, venue, active support and vision for the future places the RHA at the heart of Irish Art.