Can the RA summer exhibition still be considered an open submission show?

… Painter Patrick Cullen supplies damning evidence that the answer is ‘No!’

A detailed survey of 2011’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition reveals that the non-members’ work now represents only 29% of the total exhibition if measured by the amount of wall space it commands. This is in contrast to a figure of 78% estimated for the same show exactly one hundred years ago.

In 1911 the basic format of the exhibition was the same as now: the RAs could choose to have up to six works hung (still the case), and the public could submit three for consideration (this also remained the case right up to 2008 when the Academy decided to limit to two the number of works eligible for non members to submit). But in 1911 it was 301 Moved Permanently seen very much as an exhibition for those non-members. At that time many of the RAs chose not to submit at all and on average they put in 2.6 works apiece as compared with 4 today. (In 1911 just six RAs put in their full quota of 6 paintings, in 2011 44 of the current RAs did so.) Consequently in 1911 87% of the paintings hung in the exhibition were by non-members. We also know from photographs of the time that, although the RAs had the privilege of having their work shown  “on the line” (at eye level), the show was otherwise much less hierarchical and more democratic than today. All exhibitors were treated alike with regard to the amount of space around their pictures  (not much!) and the range spanning the biggest and smallest paintings was much less than is now the case. The bigger paintings were certainly not all by members. Even if we assume that on average the Academicians’ paintings were twice as large as the public’s and given that the RAs had only 13% of the total number of paintings, we end up with a figure of 22% for their share of the wall-space.

How different today! Not only has the number of paintings by the RAs increased to 40% of the show but they now occupy 71% of the wall-space. The chart summarizes these changes. The figures for 1961 suggest they have been part of a steady development over the past 100 years.

For ease of comparison this survey is restricted to paintings, prints,  drawings and all two dimensional works hung on the gallery walls  (referred to below as “paintings” for short). Sculpture, all 3D works and all architectural plans and models have not been included.  ‘Hon members’ include all affiliated Fellows, Members and Academicians, plus recently deceased members shown in the exhibition of that year.

What the chart shows is that the Summer Show has gradually over this period become much more of a showcase for the RAs themselves than it is for those submitting work from the general public (or the  “send-ins”). This is connected to four other changes:

1. The number of RAs has increased from 70 in 1911 to 80 in 1961 and to 116 today. There are also a lot more honorary and affiliated members exhibiting now as well as invited international artists. Plus the exhibition space has slightly decreased, gallery 11 making way for the RA shop, and the sculpture gallery also lost to redevelopment.

2. The RAs, whether out of hubris or sheer creative confidence, are submitting much larger works year on year, culminating in the biggest artwork ever displayed at the Academy, David Hockney’s “Bigger Trees”– oil on 50 canvases – in 2007. It is hard to see any reason, other than pure vanity, why Hockney, one of the biggest international stars in the Academy’s firmament with plenty of other arenas to strut his stuff, should choose to crowd out 49 other canvasses at an open submission exhibition.

3. The RAs are also hanging themselves a lot more generously in terms of space than that which they accord the “send-ins”. An extreme example of this trend is this year’s Lecture Room hang by Michael Craig-Martin often regarded as the Godfather of the YBAs. He has made this a no-go area for non members and though it’s a large room,  the walls are sparingly hung with just 16 works (and two against-the wall sculptures). It is worrying that this trend is being forged by the younger generation of RAs, Tracey Emin pulling off the same trick the year after she was elected when she hung Gallery 8 in similar style entirely with her friends’ work. The result may well be a more  “consistent hang” with each art work benefitting hugely from all the space around it, but it has nothing to do with the spirit of the Summer Exhibition, simply turning it instead into any other mixed show of successful artists that can be seen in galleries, public and private, all the year round. By contrast

301 Moved Permanently

Gallery 1 (small prints) and the Small Weston Room (small oils) are hung in the salon style with hundreds of little works cheek by jowl. Needless to say 80% of these are nonmembers works. These two crowded rooms account for just 11% of the total exhibition wall space but for over 50% of the works accepted from the general public.

4. The other side of this coin: the RAs are accepting fewer and smaller paintings from the public send-in. They recently reduced the maximum number of works the public could submit from 3 to 2. This was justified on the grounds that the send-in was getting too large to cope with. In fact it would be truer to say that they wanted to select fewer works and had been doing so for some time in order to allow for the expanded number of RAs, their even more expanded canvases and their desire to be hung more flatteringly. Why, it might be asked, did they not reduce the number of paintings they allow themselves? Either that, or put a limit on the square acreage of canvas allowed to each member.

It boils down to a question of what the Summer Show is for. The

RA likes to boast that it’s the biggest open exhibition in the world, but can it really claim this when over 70% of the walls are occupied by the club members who do not have to submit their work for selection at all? If they gave the show back to the public as it was in 1911, all the indications are that it would be more popular not less.  Sales in the Small Weston Room are, as always, over 85%; in the rest of the show they are more like 21%. Of course the critics would return to lambasting it (apart from Craig-Martin’s room the show still got little praise anyway this year). An open exhibition like this must always be a mish-mash and can never be cutting edge or cool, unless of course it abandons all pretence at being open. The trouble is that the new in-take of RAs who are now in the driving seat (40 of the old guard are now Senior Academicians – 75 or older – and as such lose all voting and selection rights), want the show to become more like Craig-Martin’s Lecture Room not less. The Small Weston Room and the kind of art it represents – conservative, unpretentious, small scale, mostly observational painting – is something whose disappearance they would not shed any tears over.

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011