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In the last half decade, the Tate Modern’s dominion over London’s contemporary-art scene has been challenged by a 250-year-old upstart. The Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, has mounted a succession of ambitious exhibitions by well-known artists that have made the most of the institution’s airy and endlessly adaptable space on Piccadilly. These include Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, and Anselm Kiefer—big names who make big works and draw big numbers. (Hockney’s 2012 show attracted more than 600,000 visitors.) The Academy was expecting large crowds for its current show by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, but didn’t think Ai would be among them. “When we embarked on the project,” says the show’s curator, Adrian Locke, “he was unable to leave China,” because the government had confiscated his passport. “Until people saw the picture of him on Instagram holding his passport [in July], no one was holding their breath.” The exhibition, Ai’s first major institutional show in the U.K., contains about 50 pieces from the last two decades. “It’s a great chance to see the multilayered facets of his work,” says Locke. “He’s very political but, embedded within that, there’s a very strong connection to traditional Chinese craftsmanship." 

Asked the secret to the Royal Academy’s recent string of successes, Locke gives full credit to the building itself. “Our competitors tend to put up shows in the same exhibition spaces, but they don’t alter those spaces. It feels fairly static, whereas we have a broad range.” Then, he adds, there is the magic of walking up the grand staircase of a 17th-century townhouse and into the galleries. “It’s a bit like a portal—you walk through the wardrobe and into Narnia.”

"Ai Weiwei" runs September 19 through December 13 at Burlington House, Piccadilly;

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