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Arabella Hope, 2019
Arabella Hope, 2019Courtesy of the artist

Over 130 art students accuse the RCA of losing their work during lockdown

‘They have made it very clear that my work has no value,’ says Arabella Hope, the artist leading a student campaign to demand accountability

On March 19, 2020, the Royal College of Art shut its doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic, days ahead of the UK’s first nationwide lockdown. Although people were already on edge about the growing threat of COVID-19, the closure came out of the blue, leaving art students locked out of their studios with no way to retrieve their work or materials.

Months later, in the summer of 2020, the RCA released short time slots for students in London to empty their spaces before new students arrived. However, like hundreds of thousands of other London residents, many students had moved out of the city during lockdown, and were unable to return to collect their belongings. Instead, the RCA announced plans to clear out the studios with the help of an independent storage company.

“I was quite relieved that they were helping out, and imagined a nice packing of artworks,” says Farvash Razavi, a conceptual artist who moved back to Stockholm following the closure. However, when she flew back to London in September, to collect a sculpture for a scheduled performance, she found stacks of unmarked and unorganised boxes. The majority of her work was lost, or in pieces.

“Each box that I opened, I found shattered artwork, shattered research, high tech materials, all completely destroyed,” Razavi tells Dazed. “And the sculpture I came for was gone, all of it was thrown away.”

“I came back with nothing, completely empty-handed.”

Many of her artworks — which explore her experience as an Iranian living in Sweden, and the politics of technology — are impossible to replicate. Much of her science-based work took place over several years, and one project would cost more than £50,000 to remake. The price of materials for each project (including the sculpture that was thrown away) also ran into the thousands, developed thanks to various sponsorships.

“Each of the artworks I have made involves so many people,” she adds. “They have worked for free, or offered me access to their laboratories for free... and for what? My work is the only way I can pay them back.”

Unfortunately, Razavi’s story isn’t unique. More than 130 RCA students have accused the acclaimed art school of losing or damaging their work during lockdown, according to the university’s students’ union. Arabella Hope — a professional painter for 14 years, who joined the MA to further develop her work — lost the entire contents of her studio, including artworks from her career prior to the course. “The loss has been depressing and the battle to get answers has been never-ending,” Hope says, estimating that the value of her lost work and materials exceeds £20,000.

As a result, Hope — who has since transferred to Goldsmiths — is leading a student campaign to demand proper compensation from the RCA. “We have a large movement of affected students and supporters,” she says, noting the widespread support on social media. Razavi, for one, says that she’s proud to be part of the collective action, and was inspired to speak out by Hope’s campaign, sharing work with the Guardian in a story published earlier this week.

In fact, it was only after the Guardian approached the RCA for comment that the university sent students its plans for “limited compensation” (which will cover lost equipment, materials, and personal items).

“The work of RCA students is of utmost importance to the college,” an RCA spokesperson told the newspaper. “We regret that a small number of students have contacted us about lost or damaged items as a result of the process to pack up studios at the end of the 2020 academic year.”

However, Hope explains that the limited compensation offer doesn’t go far enough to address the costs of the lost artworks. “Our lost and damaged work will not be compensated,” she says. “Neither will our time spent remaking it, or lost funding and exhibitions.”

The RCA, she adds, “have made it very clear in their ‘goodwill gesture’ that my work has no value. They are sending a clear message that, despite all the evidence of their mistakes, they are not willing to apologize or put it right. We now know the RCA prizes profits over art or education.”

Spurred on by the campaign’s supporters (including well known artists and institutions that have reached out, “to say how sorry and appalled they are” Hope is currently searching for lawyers to take legal action against the university. “We will take them to court,” she says, “and our case is strong.”