Issue Number: 91
“If we were Americans, we’d shout about the Summer Exhibition from the roof-tops.”
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is a big, wild, hoary mess of a thing, not a neat, tidy white-cube affair. I love it for that. It covers a multitude of sins, with hundreds of works in every style, painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture. I’ve never had a problem with it, except when I was a student at the Royal College of Art. I turned up full of disdain, expecting to look down my great, long nose and sneer. Instead, I was astonished by the quality. I immediately submitted work and was lucky (twice) to get accepted before I became an RA.
Judging works submitted to the Summer Exhibition 2005 Judging works submitted to the Summer Exhibition 2005
It’s seen as a highly British institution, yet the RA’s the opposite of hidebound in the way it flings its doors open to all artists, professional or unknown. There is nothing comparable anywhere else in the world. It’s a great event, with a fantastic ethos. If we were Americans, we’d shout about the Summer Exhibition from the roof-tops.
As selectors, what do we look for? With hundreds of paintings to consider, we’re after just one thing: a decent piece of work, done with effort and seriousness. Artists misjudge. They think, ‘Oh, I’ve had this at the back of the studio for years, I’ll send it in to the RA.’ But if that’s their attitude, we don’t want it either. So there’s really no mystery. All we want is what’s good.
The art world and, no doubt, some quarters of the RA itself, are riddled with snobbery. Every year, without fail, the Summer Exhibition is attacked and the critics tear it to pieces. That doesn’t worry me in the slightest. It’s good to get up people’s noses. But half the insults come from people who aren’t looking at what’s on display. It’s like automatically attacking Milton Keynes as a joke city when you’ve never even been there.
There’s plenty of jealousy towards the RA, too. It’s a key player internationally, in the heart of London. It’s got wonderful buildings and it has to make its own way financially. We can do what the hell we like. I love that aspect. To me, as an Academician, the Summer Exhibition is at the heart of what we do. It’s a good and generous thing. It invites people in. So much in the art world is the opposite – it can be elitist in the way it shuts doors on this or that style of work.
One typical complaint is that the Summer Exhibition is just the same old people doing the same thing year after year. You could say that of everywhere else: the Tate, or Saatchi’s, or the private galleries. But the RA is genuinely eclectic. This year, the range is as big as ever, starting with a massive Damien Hirst in the courtyard. And some pictures are blamed for being too conventional. Actually, I’ve got a big soft spot for boats bobbing up and down in the water.
If art of any kind is done seriously, if it speaks to you, it deserves our attention. To anyone needing advice about the show I’d say this: drop your bags at the front door, drop your foibles and your prejudices. Don’t be lazy. Look. Make an effort. Hundreds of people have taken precious time to do these pieces: hours, days, weeks of blood, sweat and tears. Don’t just swan around, chatting. Use your brain, eyes, heart, intellect, stomach. Feel what each artist is trying to do. Enjoy it. That’s all we require of you.
“The cameras have been allowed in and around everywhere in Burlington House”
Everyone thinks of the RA’s Summer Exhibition as one of the great British traditions, part of the season, and yet it’s an event that has never, until now, been properly represented on television. For someone like myself, who’s fascinated by the arts, it presents a great creative challenge: to work out how to put it across, how to communicate the presence, the immediacy and the excitement of the Summer Exhibition. So I was more than a little enthusiastic when some of my colleagues said they had ambitious plans to present the Summer Exhibition on television.
Even though it takes place in London, it attracts audiences from around the country and, of course, the work itself can come from anywhere. The participatory aspect, both for artists who want to exhibit and visitors who might choose to buy work off the walls, is vital. And it’s one reason the Summer Exhibition gets so widely and hotly debated – and written about – each year.
In terms of TV, we’ve found a way on BBC2 to televise major events such as Crufts or the Chelsea Flower Show, but so far we’ve been slow to do this with the arts, especially the visual arts. With the Royal Academy, we saw at once the potential for what we call a ‘schedule-busting event’, when you do just that: change the normal pattern and, in this case, clear slots on three consecutive nights for the RA series.
This kind of programming, we know, builds up audiences. It’s something to make a date with. And it’s also, in this case, quite different from a more conventionally structured arts documentary. There will be a magazine-style mix of topical elements, reports, comment and a popular presenter, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, who, as well as being known for his interior design skills, is also an art historian and went to art school himself.
In addition, there will be a buyers’ guide, not so much suggesting what to buy as how to go about making a judgement and what you may have to spend. Most people haven’t had the experience and I’m sure that they would welcome the advice.
The key point is to capture the atmosphere, to demonstrate the excitement and the sense of actually being there. Over a series of months, the cameras have been allowed in and around everywhere in Burlington House, with its extraordinary history, all of which we aim to convey. We also want the programmes to be valuable for people who can’t get to the Royal Academy, but want to know what is going on.
We’ve even filmed part of the selection process for the Summer Exhibition and are attempting to transmit something of the richness and complexity and, sometimes, controversy of the undertaking, as well as the sheer number and variety of works on offer. We’ve shown submissions being discussed, accepted and rejected. Although before anyone gets too excited, the artists themselves will remain anonymous…