Charles Saumarez Smith pictured with a 2015 Ai Weiwei installation in the Royal Academy's courtyard © Charlie Bibby/FT

Charles Saumarez Smith is stepping down as chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts after 11 years at the helm of one of the UK’s most prominent cultural institutions.

Sir Charles’s departure comes after the completion in May of a £56m redevelopment of the RA’s London home on Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens, a project designed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the artists’ club.

He said in a statement on Friday that his years at the RA had been “very interesting, rewarding and creative”.

“There is never a good time to announce one’s departure, but I wanted to leave at a time of obvious strength and success,” he said.

A former director of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, where he also oversaw major building works, Sir Charles took up his post at the RA at a time of increased uncertainty over its financing. With no state funding, the RA strengthened its financial position during his tenure by boosting ticket sales from exhibitions and membership fees from its “friends” scheme, as well as drawing big donations from philanthropists such as Lloyd Dorfman, founder of Travelex.

He is set to leave at the end of the year, when he will take up a post as senior director at Blain Southern, a commercial contemporary art gallery.

A number of figures in recent years have taken a similar path from the non-commercial world to the private sector: Richard Calvocoressi, former director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, moved on to Gagosian, the gallery group, while Julia Peyton-Jones stepped down as co-director of the Serpentine Galleries last year and joined the staff of gallery Thaddaeus Ropac.

Sir Charles’s departure sets up a contest to replace him in one of the UK’s biggest arts jobs. Among those tipped by art world figures as possible contenders for the role are Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in West Yorkshire; Victoria Pomery, director of Turner Contemporary in Margate; and Victoria Siddall, director of the Frieze art fairs.

The role of Royal Academy chief executive presents unusual challenges, since the artists and architects who form its membership have a strong hand in running the organisation through a series of committees.

But when interviewed by the FT in 2015, Sir Charles suggested the stereotype of contemporary artists as incurable anarchists was misplaced.

“People forget artists are often pretty businesslike, particularly nowadays,” he said. “They’re running big operations.”

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