HER love affair with the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture (RSA) started when she was a schoolgirl at a Modigliani and Soutine exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival of 1963.

Decades on, Joyce W Cairns is now marking her second anniversary as the first female president of that ­august body after studying at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen – where she later taught – the Royal College of Art in London and Goldsmiths ­College, also in London.

Her election as the first woman to run the RSA since it was founded in 1826 went virtually unnoticed in 2018 despite its significance in ­today’s ­gender equality landscape.

Next weekend the RSA website will feature an analysis of the First ­Women of the Royal Scottish Academy, by art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art Alice Strang, while the charity Art UK – which aims to make art available for everyone – hosts an abridged interview with the RSA president which will feature in full on the RSA website.

Strang noted: “In 1885, Sir William Fettes Douglas, sixth President of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (RSA), infamously declared that the work of a woman artist was ‘like a man’s only weaker and poorer’.

“It is not surprising therefore, that the history of women at the RSA is stark, but it is improving.”

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Cairns said that while she found the Modigliani and Soutine exhibition “very exciting”, at the time she could not imagine getting into art school or becoming an Academician.

“I was elected to the Academy as an associate member in 1985, and then was made a full member in 1998,” she told Art UK.

“I can truthfully say that never once, during these years, had I any aspirations to take on the presidential role. In fact, during my 28 years lecturing in drawing and painting at Gray’s School of Art I always ­preferred to be a front-line teacher rather than a manager.

“I simply loved teaching and the ­relationships with students through the tutorial system.

“I had no desire to sit in ­interminable meetings with administrators and academics discussing policies that bore no relationship to the crucial business of inspiring emerging artists to be creative and to engage with the history of their subject.”

That all changed when she was approached by several Academicians asking if she would consider taking on the role of president.

Cairns admitted to being “extremely flattered” but said she was against it for a host of reasons: “What qualifications, apart from being an artist, did I have to take on this huge ­responsibility?

“But in fact, over the 34 years since becoming a member, I had served several times on council; been chair of the General Purposes Committee, which deals with many aspects of Academy business including all the awards, bursaries, residency schemes and benevolent funds; been deputy president; served as convenor of, and taken part in, many hanging and ­arrangement teams for both the Academy annual exhibitions and the student competition, which became the New Contemporaries.

“I realised that without this ­internal knowledge and experience, taking on the Presidency would have been extremely difficult.”

She said that over the past dozen years the RSA had become a very complex and multi-faceted organisation with a much larger remit, and the “deeply challenging” responsibility to ensure it runs in line with its constitution while continuing to achieve its aims and objectives.

“Electing a female president of the Scottish Academy was long overdue,” said Cairns, adding: “But, at least it was finally achieved after some 192 years!

“It might be suggested that this is a tad more progressive than the Royal Academy in London who only last year finally managed to elect Rebecca Salter as President of the institution; an institution which had been established for some 250 years.

“Moreover, at present, the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, the Royal West of England in Bristol, and the Royal Ulster Academy in Belfast have all recently elected female ­presidents.”

RSA collections curator, Sandy Wood, said its programmes aimed to reflect the best of art and architecture practice in Scotland, “irrespective of gender, ethnicity or other factors”.

He said that as far as gender was concerned, evidence in recent years presented a modern Academy ­operating on an equal platform, although change has been slower in certain areas.

“Looking only at the membership gives a picture of just one part of the Academy’s diverse identity today, and the unequal balance of male to female members that is still evident is a hangover from history the Academy has been working to improve,” he said.

“It is an indictment to past generations that we are not in a better ­position now, however the desire for change was hampered by the ­Academy’s constitution until it was amended in 2005.

“Before this date, restrictions on the number of Academicians that could be elected were a barrier to the membership changing with the times.”

More female than male artists had been elected over the past five years, but architects were lagging behind in gender balance, although that sector of the membership are now actively addressing “this injustice”.

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As with all other aspects of life, Covid-19 has affected the RSA. ­Although it is still open, visitors have to pre-book, including for the Christmas Show in the Lower Galleries (November 29-December 22), which will feature work by Cairns and a number of the RSA’s other female members.

Administratively, its business has had to be conducted from home by videoconference, which has ­curtailed to some extent, the president’s ­activities, although she did like its entertaining moments, “with guest appearances from various beasts and children, but we do miss actual ­human interaction”.

Cairns had wanted to encourage a sense of inclusiveness amongst ­artists and the broader cultural ­community, as well as further developing the RSA’s existing educational ­programmes.

Last year she managed to reinstate the Annual Academy Dinner after a 15-year absence, and described it as a huge success.

With her gregarious nature, she said she missed the “most enjoyable” activities of the role, such as social events and dinners.

“So, the last few months have been a little disappointing. We have no way of knowing when, and in what form, we will be able to resume our normal activities.”

A series of virtual events had been held which had reached new audiences and more will follow. There were also additional features on the RSA website.

As she reaches her second anniversary in the role, Cairns said she liked to believe she was elected for her ability to do the job and not simply because of her gender.

“Throughout my career as an ­artist I have never found that my gender has held me back or been a disadvantage. I firmly believe we should all be judged only on the quality of our work; not on age, gender or ­ethnicity.”