10535599_10152556126271410_7756792422587117034_oAn exploration into the question of whether the annual Summer Exhibition is a reflection of elite tastes or of new directions in art

Ever since its inception in 1769, the Royal Academy (RA) has been hosting an annual Summer Exhibition that is open to the public. This highly anticipated event attracts a huge crowd every year. It is reputed in the world of art for providing a platform to budding artists to display their work and be judged and selected by a panel of leading artists. This panel comprises the Council of Academicians (the governing body of the RA), chaired by the President of the Academy. All academicians (established artists) are permitted to submit their masterpieces, while up-and-coming artists use this opportunity to get valuable exposure.

A maximum of two pieces are allowed for submission at a fee of £18 per piece. It is very competitive — every year, the panel receives more than 10,000 entries but only 1,000 works are selected. Most of the exhibited works go up for sale and the Academy receives 30% of the purchase price. The institution is independently funded and does not receive any financial support from the government.

Each year brings the most exciting and diverse work, and this year was no exception. With the newly appointed Academicians, the establishment is pushing its boundaries to appeal to a new audience, stepping aside from the conservative art it is known for. The 11 new Academicians make up 10% of the current establishment. They are — Chantal Joffe, Mike Nelson, Tim Shaw, Neil Jeffries, Wolfgang Tillmans, Bob and Roberta Smith, Yinka Shonibare, Thomas Heatherwick, Rebecca Warren, Conrad Shawcross and Louisa Hutton. The typical categories assigned to the Royal Academicians include painting, sculpture and architecture, and the sub-categories consists of engraving, printmaking and draughtsmanship.

Nowadays, however, this categorisation is considered to be outdated. German-born artist Wolfgang Tillmans argues that the definitions of a photographer, painter and printmaker often overlap, so one cannot distinguish or even attempt to divide them anymore. Nevertheless, the Academy’s President Christopher Le Brun is adamant that it is still vital to retain the categories and that there is no urgency to change the current set-up. But installation artists, for example, find it challenging to choose pieces as the gallery spaces are said to be too “grandiose”. In an interview with the RA, artist Mike Nelson agrees that the Summer Exhibition is “very particular”, but that the distribution of space is still daunting. Nelson’s work is made from debris and products bought from second-hand shops, and therefore having no ready-made work or an abundance of materials in the exhibition space is unusual for him.

There is often a slight snobbery associated with being a member of the Academy, and it is debated whether it is a wise choice for an artists or a career-damaging one. Even Henry Moore is known to have been dismissive of the establishment and what it stands for. Many thought it was not welcoming, and that the Academicians consisted of old-fashioned folks. It is only recently that the art world has started to accept the purpose of this “club” in society. Being in a “club” immediately segregates you from the mainstream, and you are labelled as elitist. But in fact, some artists appreciate the idea of being in an exclusive circle. For example, Chantal Joffe considers it a great privilege to have been chosen to be a member of the RA; especially when in the art world, you are accustomed to working alone. Joffe is known for her paintings that depict psychological and sensual aspects. As a member of the Academy, she joins renowned international artists such as Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor and Michael Landy.

The summer show proves to be incredible. The highlights of this year’s show include a black and white room curated by Cornelia Parker — a contrast to the colourful spectrum of the rest of the show. Other artists to look out for are Thomas Heatherwick, and Bob and Roberta Smith. The Summer Exhibition is on display at the RA, Burlington House, London from June 9 to August 17.

— Nicola Phiri, Correspondent (Art)

Image Courtesy: Herry Lawford (https://www.flickr.com/photos/herry/5843225916), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic | Flickr