Behind the scenes at the 250th Summer Exhibition
By Sam Phillips
Published on 18 May 2018
What's it like to put together the Summer Exhibition? We spoke to this year's coordinator, Grayson Perry RA, and his band of fellow artists in charge of selecting and hanging the world's largest open-submission art show.
What do you get when you bring together 12 of the country’s most celebrated artists to hang over 1,000 artworks, selected from around 20,000 of every style, across some of the world’s most beautiful gallery spaces, with the challenge of satisfying established artists they know and respect, emerging artists they wish to encourage, critics after a coherent story, an institution celebrating its 250th anniversary and, most significantly, the 200,000-plus art lovers who will visit in the hope of enjoying and maybe buying some great contemporary art?
If this question sounds like it needs a punchline rather than an answer, then the joke this year is on Grayson Perry, the Royal Academician tasked with leading that band of 12 artists to make something special of this year’s Summer Exhibition. Humour threads thickly through Perry’s own work, from his tapestries, prints and pots to his TV programmes, all of which explore the complexities and quirks of British culture, with any subject fair game; in similarly democratic fashion, he has encouraged a particularly wide sweep of artists to submit this year, from international art stars to amateur, folk and Outsider artists (those who are untrained and unconventional). And to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the RA and its famous annual exhibition, the Summer Show spreads spectacularly upwards and outwards, even beyond the RA’s buildings. Perry and fellow Academicians Cornelia Parker, Rose Wylie and Joe Tilson have designed flags to decorate the streets around the RA, while fashion and jewellery brands around Bond Street present celebratory window displays. On the RA’s campus, the exhibition expands from the Main Galleries upstairs into the Sackler Wing, where prints are showcased, and over the Weston Bridge to the new Ronald and Rita McAulay Gallery, where Perry will curate what he describes as a "Room of Fun".
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."
That something else is "dangerous", in the view of Ocean. "It has danger for artists and for the viewer. A viewer can say, 'Oh, I like this more than this', and there are no wall labels with the artists’ names to give you an idea of what you are supposed to like. One year I hung a Georg Baselitz next to a painting of a battleship that was sent in from Lincolnshire by an artist who was not well known. The viewer did not know who painted what, and they might have preferred the battleship. That’s good for all artists, because art is about risk."
Perry agrees that the show is unique in "its weird mash up of the superstar and the recognised and the amateur"; he anticipates that the Outsider art that features this year will "blend in well and fight its corner, qualitatively" with the work of established artists. The Summer Show has a way of flattening such hierarchies in a way that, in Perry’s view, has gained acceptability of late. "Since postmodernism, pluralism has become part of the art world. Everything is now relevant all at once. A big part of the art world at the moment is revisiting neglected artists and media, and that pluralism works in the RA’s favour to a certain extent, as nothing seems distant or beyond the pale." Diversity of media, however, can only go so far, given there is only so much wall and floor. "It’s very difficult to show more than a handful of videos or installation works or large, assemblage-type works, which are all very prevalent among younger artists at the moment. They know that, and so they don’t enter them."
Architecture, in contrast, has always been incorporated. "The juxtaposition of art and architecture in the Summer Exhibition is very healthy and interesting and enlivens both fields," says Piers Gough, who hangs the architecture room this year. The material he presents allows audiences to shift to a very different type of mindset. "Architectural drawings, photographs and models give information about something that might be built or has been built. You can see what Norman Foster is up to, or some other RAs, or what other younger, thrusting, brilliant practices are dreaming up for the next stage of architecture. But this information about architecture is not architecture itself – it’s not an encounter with real thing, as it is with an artwork. Information asks for a completely different way of looking and thinking." It represents a rare showcase of the profession to a mass audience. "The RA’s architecture room is a very important window of opportunity, because you have a very general public having a look – people who would be unlikely to go to an architecture gallery or show otherwise."
In early March the Selection Committee gathers for the first stage of the judging process, reviewing every work that has been sent in. Submission at this stage is digital: artists send in high-resolution images of a maximum of two works, with the entry fee of £35 per work. There are size limits and, bar prints, artworks must never have been previously exhibited at a major London institution. The Academicians sit in the darkened interiors of the RA’s gilded Fine Rooms for six days, reviewing images projected on a large screen, with details such as material and dimensions shown alongside. Observing the process, one is struck by the time given to each image and the care the Selection Committee takes, in what is a gruelling challenge of concentration.
But now to the most important question: what are they looking for? "You’re listening, waiting, for that voice that’s going to lift your spirits or surprise you in some way," answers Perry. "For a spark of energy in the way a work’s been painted," says Mach. "And it comes from the artist’s ideas – you get plenty of people who are really highly skilled but also who have no idea of something interesting to paint." For Ocean, that welcome surprise is something separate to admiration. "Something might light me up, but it doesn’t mean I like it. It might not be to my taste, but whatever it is, it’s done something and so it goes through to the next stage." The next stage is the shortlist of 4,000 works that are requested for delivery at the gallery, so that they can be seen "in the flesh" and considered for the hang in May: at the time of writing in April that process has yet to start.
"We try to pick the best examples of the genres that are the most prevalent," says Perry. Agreement on quality came easily, says Shawcross, who selected the sculpture alongside Parker and Barlow. "It was good judging with both of them, as there was a consensus. The only awkward thing was when we both said we wanted the same sculpture for our individual rooms. We might have to fight about those when they come to the galleries!" It is the first time Barlow has hung the show and she admits she found the digital judging process difficult. "I went through a wave of wanting to reject everything. And then I changed my mind and thought, 'Stop being so prudish, open up and take a few risks'. And then I would seesaw between things that I didn’t know what to think about."
This difficulty stems partly from Barlow’s intense interest in the context and history of artists and their artwork, an interest that has taken precedence over her personal opinions. "When I look at art, I’m desperately trying to find out what this artist is trying to do, rather than being judgemental. One’s looking at something else that’s quite specific to the artist and place they’ve come from, and the experiences they may be having politically, or environmentally, or sexually, or identity-wise – there’s a mass of information crammed into the work that transcends just that one-to-one relationship between you and the work. It’s interesting to be suddenly put in the position of these images coming up very thick and fast and having to revert to being 'yes' and 'no' and very judgmental."
"I really feel the anxiety of those submitting – £35 is an investment for an artist, and it’s a significant step to put yourself up for judgement," says Stibbon. "I would say to anyone submitting that if your work is not accepted it’s not necessarily a judgement on the quality of the work, but due to all the factors of putting together an exhibition and hanging so many works on the walls."
One important aspect is the way a work will relate to others. "It depends on how I put the room together," says Ocean. "It’s like acting, if you don’t get the part, it’s chemistry. It doesn’t mean you’re a lousy actor, it just means that you weren’t right for this film." Gough concurs. "Architects aren’t often declined because of their lack of ability. I’ve only got one room so I’ve got to be a bit ruthless. I end up with maybe half a dozen that are rather similar, and I just choose the one that I think works best for the room. It’s still heart-breaking being rejected, of course."
Works that gain acclaim in the digital judging can disappoint in the flesh. "You respond to an actual work of art on so many more levels – in your stomach you love the dirtiness, the mattness, the glossiness," says Ocean. "For me, it’s a bit like seeing trousers on the internet. You think, 'Oh, those are nice'. But I’ll tell you what, I’d like to see them. And then you get them, and sometimes you’re pleased, and sometimes you are disappointed and you return them."
It may raise hopes to shortlist so many works, but the Academicians need as many options as possible, to give them flexibility for the hang. "Such a large, mixed exhibition with a range of such dissimilar work has particular problems," says Allen Jones. "I’ve found the best thing is to group works that seem to have a similar pictorial idea, or are pictorially in sympathy with each other. Then it allows the viewer to come in and get their eye into the kind of language of the pictures, rather than popping from a totally abstract work to a totally figurative work and back again."
Sometimes, says Stibbon, visual coherence is not about image. "With the print rooms, we’re hanging tightly. I remember last time, running around looking through all the stacks, saying, 'Can you see a long, thin, vertical one?' At that point, I was picking partly by size and dimensions rather than image, to fit the space in a good arrangement. There’s that geography of it, as well as dialogues and tensions you want to create between works." Printmaking will be an especially strong presence this year, unified in the beautiful Sackler Wing suite, which will be flooded with natural light. One huge draw up the stairs will be Perry’s Selfie with Political Causes (2018), a multi-coloured, three-metre-wide woodcut; others are by high-profile Honorary Academicians, including Jim Dine and Kiki Smith, as well as experimental animations projected on small screens hung among the rest of the wall-based works. "Printmaking has an incredible range from traditional to new technologies, such as laser cutting, which has been embraced by artists in a big way this year."
The dizzying range of work is a cause of concern for Shawcross, whose loose theme for his room is "psycho-geometry" – geometric work with a psychological edge. "There are some artists that I’ve invited for the theme, such as Rana Begum and Graham Guy-Robinson, who are minimalists working with geometry, but those artists may be completely diluted or countered out by other things I have to contain in that room." Shawcross says an early idea for this year’s show was to set and publish themes for each room in advance, so that those submitting work could be given guidance. This did not happen, but he thinks the idea would evolve the Summer Show. "It would be an exciting, transformative thing, creating more visual coherence that you could really review critically and get your teeth into, and yet it would still be democratic and very much open."
Barlow is also fearful, as a first-time hanger like Shawcross. "I haven’t got a clue how I’m going to hang my room. That does actually terrify me." But probed further, trepidation turns to excitement. "It’s very unorthodox to show sculpture in the way that the Summer Exhibition asks. The actual works – their sizes and forms, all sorts of things about them – will be very different, and that will be fascinating to see. There’s a side of me that wants to work with that difference, and see what happens when there is an impure way of showing art, where things are perhaps crowded and blocking and competing, and the sightlines are strange and awkward and quite provocative. The viewers become uncertain about how much space each object owns. Do the objects become something else other than sculpture in that kind of survivalist placing?"
Another concern for the hangers is the ire of fellow Academicians, who fear of being "skied" – high on the wall away from eye level. RAs have complained about this since the first show; Gainsborough, famously, refused to submit after what he saw as a sleight. It is a competitive environment, in the words of Jones, "like student shows, in which artists are trying to say, 'Look at me, look at me'."
"I can remember skying a picture by a friend of mine here," says Ocean, "but I skied it deliberately because the colour of it pulled the eye up – you saw it the moment you walked in the room. I’m still friends with the artist but there was a tricky moment. But it’s not a disaster. Nobody dies of being up in the air, quite." Gough agrees. "If you send in a whacking great picture that you can look at from a distance, then it is likely to get put up quite high. I wouldn’t put some small delicate drawing up high because that would just be ridiculous. And every RA knows the rules. I’m not allowed to edit out RAs – they have to be hung and that’s a hell of a limitation, so they might get hung high."
Competition can also manifest itself between the hangers. "You might come back after your tea break and find that the picture that you have prized has suddenly disappeared!" says Jones. "You go sleuthing to find who has just come in and purloined a picture because it’s going to fill the right space in their room." Christopher Le Brun says any brief spats are a result of the responsibility each Academician feels. "Occasionally there are arguments. That’s because there’s more emotion than one would warrant. Because don’t forget, they feel responsible to do their best for the RA – and they want there to be lots of sales because they know that benefits the Academy."
"I’ve made it my mission to make the group of artists cohere," says Perry. ‘We’ve had a few tetchy conversations around territory and I’m sure there’ll be more, but I’m hoping that we’ll all get along in the hang. I’m willing to take one for the team when I need to, to make people feel at ease so that they can enjoy the experience. Because I want it to be fun." The other Academicians appreciate his efforts. "I take my hat off to Grayson for taking it on with such bravura and gusto," says Barlow. "He’s quite incredible, and there’s no primness there, no sense of exercising a kind of authoritarian conceit. He’s made it feel incredibly open."
"I’m looking forward to the hanging process," says Mach. "That’s what artists are doing all the time. I mean, you go home at night, you put your car keys on the table, you stand back for a second and then you move them again because they don’t look quite in the right position. It’s ridiculous: you can’t escape it as an artist. It’s a curse in a funny way." So do artists make better hangers than professional curators? Le Brun notes a difference in approach. "It’s a big generalisation but I think artists are careful not to over-determine. They tend to absorb the situation for as long as they can before making decisions. This can mean they are guided more by the look of the work in the space rather than a predetermined idea." Ocean adds, "If you’re a curator, you have a purpose at the back of your mind, making a point by putting something on carefully and persuasively. Artists can end up with something unconventional, and if it doesn’t work we won’t get fired! We don’t have to be so careful."
Regular show visitors will have seen a shift in the 21st century, with the exhibition better representing all aspects of art than was the case in the late 20th. "It’s in a healthy phase, in terms of variety," continues Perry. "But I’m not thinking about the 250th version as a historical marker point as, of course, in many respects, it won’t be so different from last year or the year before. It’s a selection of work that we are sent. It’s different every year but also very much the same. And that reflects the two dynamics that we all struggle with as human beings: that we want continuity, but we also want the vitality and stimulus of change. In the end, my only worry is to make the show an enjoyable exhibition to visit. That’s stimulating, that has vitality to it. And that’s funny, lively, playful. That’s an experience."