It is fun that comes to his mind when the artist recalls first visiting the show in his early 20s, in the 1980s, when he took wry pleasure at the traditional works on view. “We enjoyed the kitsch of it, and it was fun going round and saying, ‘Oh, I like that one’, and never being sure whether we were saying it ironically or not.” Artist David Mach remembers looking down his “long snooty nose at the RA, some stuffy old institution that I would never be part of”, when he first visited the show as a student. “You’ve got that arrogance as a young artist. And the Summer Exhibition is fantastic for making artists arrogant, isn’t it? Because it slices through loads of very clearly marked boundaries artists like to uphold, about an artist being from this part of the art world or that. It brings us all together, whether we think what another one of us is doing is brilliant or crap.” Now an Academician, Mach is another of the artists hanging the show, together with sculptors Phyllida Barlow, Cornelia Parker and Conrad Shawcross, painter Humphrey Ocean, architect Piers Gough, artists Allen Jones, Chris Orr, Tom Phillips and Emma Stibbon – all elected to the RA as printmakers or engravers – and Christopher Le Brun, who, as President of the RA, is Chair of the Selection Committee.
“When you’re not part of the Academy you think of it as a bastion of the establishment,” says Ocean. “But when you’re in it, you see that it’s freethinking. As the artists who run the RA, we can do what we like.” That has always included encouraging other artists of whatever background to submit works for its walls. Many who hang the show have tasted success and failure in that regard, before they became Academicians. Ocean remembers a triumph in 1974. “I sent in three things that year and I got them all in – when I got the letter I thought there had been some mistake.” Stibbon, who together with Orr hangs the print rooms in the Sackler Wing, says success in the Summer Exhibition was crucial for her as a printmaker. “It’s been a major part of my economy, selling works at the show, and making connections with collectors and curators.”
Unlike some commercial galleries, there is transparency and accessibility in the buying process, with prices published in the List of Works and online, and a sales desk open to everyone. Barlow, who hangs a room of sculpture this year, respects the commercial edge of the show. “It is, of course, a strategy to support the RA Schools, who benefit from commission from sales and entry fees. That long relationship between the Summer Exhibition and the Schools is extraordinary and very important. But I also find it interesting because it makes an art show a big bazaar.”
“You go into the Summer Show and it’s a huge tumble-dryer of art swirling around you,” says Perry. “The sheer generosity of that means that, I bet, in every room, everybody from the sternest critic to the most innocent newcomer to art can find something they like.” But the “salon hang” of the RA’s bazaar/tumble dryer – with works fighting for attention on the wall – is a world away from the good-taste “white cube” aesthetic that art-lovers have grown to expect, where white walls are sparsely hung so that works can be viewed in blissful isolation. A minimalist hang is impossible at the Summer Exhibition, due to the sheer number of works that need to be accommodated: the open-submission works, known as the “send in”, which comprises around two-thirds of the 1,200 in the final show; those from over 125 Royal Academicians, who by rights can submit up to six works each, depending on their dimensions; and works from a small number of invited artists, who are often encouraged to submit to fit a particular theme that the Selection Committee has in mind. “It’s the last salon show in the world with any significance, and we don’t want to lose that feel of this great, eclectic mix of stuff,” explains Mach. “Most artists can show in a white cube if they want to. I find those places quite dull, as a matter of fact. The Summer Exhibition I don’t find dull. I find it something else.”