This grand structure was completed in 1826 to the designs of William Playfair, but its exterior dates from eight years later, after Playfair was asked to remodel his work. The building's 16 columns give it a Grecian air that finds echoes in other Playfair buildings around the city. It was originally built for the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Scotland, and dramatically renovated in the 1910s to accommodate the Royal Scottish Academy. The 21st century saw another overhaul of the building, including the addition of cruciform-shaped lower-level galleries.
The building is effectively a large-scale space for temporary exhibitions, supplementing big-ticket blockbusters with shows devoted to less well-known artists. A number of annual events focus on Scottish art, chief among them the RSA Annual Exhibition (usually May/June). Each January, the gallery also displays the Turner watercolours, bequeathed in 1900 by Henry Vaughan on the condition that they were only shown when daylight was at its weakest. Given the environmental controls now in place, they could be displayed more often but breaking out the Turners once a year has become quite a tradition.