RA summer exhibition: not all open exhibitions are cheats

In The Jackdaw ♯8 artist Doug Lowe asked if the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was a genuine open or an Academicians’ closed shop.

Has anyone ever worked out the total cost to artists of a big show like the RA Summer Exhibition in time, depreciation of vehicles, fuel, parking, framing, mounting, entrance etc.? It must run into millions…

Not all open exhibitions are cheats.  Some give seriously good odds that you will get hung if your work is competently executed and shows some creativity. My target is the RA Summer Exhibition which deludes us into thinking we have a good chance of being selected.  Being gamblers at heart (and desperate to boot) we artists naively part with our hard-earned cash, not to mention our precious time which might be better spent working than in exposing ourselves to brutalizing motorway queues and London’s permanent traffic jams.

We suckers do our sums, calculate the odds and they seem to be reasonable.  So, from all over Britain, we trot along to Burlington Gardens with our treasured efforts. A few weeks later the rejection slip duly arrives, so we trot all the way back again to collect them.  This process reminds me of the Grand Old Duke of York. Has anyone ever worked out the total cost to artists of a big show like the RA Summer Exhibition in time, depreciation of vehicles, fuel, parking, framing, mounting, entrance etc.? It must run into millions.

What irritates is not so much what the organisers tell us, it is what they don’t tell us. But if we hang around long enough, it slowly penetrates our thick skulls that we are suckers and that we would be better advised to put our paintings into a local art show where we might not gain fame and fortune, but at least we might sell something. Face it fellow artists, the queue in the line for fame and fortune stretches around the globe and the chances of your paintings or mine being selected is much more remote than you think.

Having had three rejections in a row, I decided to do some calculations. I studied both the 1999 and 2000 catalogues. The statistics for both are similar. Last year about 13,000 paintings were submitted from around 5,000 artists. 1,156 works were displayed. This means that you had an 11/1 chance of being hung – reasonable odds you might think. Not so. Academicians (RAs) are entitled to hang six paintings, as against the rest of us who can only submit three. So most of them do just that. If this is an open exhibition, how is it that the Academicians get twice as many as everyone else? If they want an Academicians’ show surely they have sufficient power within the Academy  (since they run it!) to mount such a self-promoting exercise. Why elbow out no-hopers like me when they are already miles out in front? With their unfair advantage,  Academicians should be barred from the show, let alone be allowed six works each.

We are told that all submissions are viewed anonymously. This is absurd. How do the selectors manage to choose six Academician’s paintings to our possible three if they aren’t clearly identified? Are they all so distinguished and well known to the selectors that the judging panel can bull’s eye every Academician’s painting submitted without knowing their identity? I doubt it.

If 5,000 artists submitted works for selection but 93 Academicians’ work were selected this represents just 2% of the artists submitting work. They got in 4.7 works each amounting to 38% of the total exhibits. You might have thought that this leaves space for a mere 7,219 works for the rest of us, but it doesn’t. The actual number from outside is far fewer than this because in order to improve the standard of the exhibition certain artists are invited to show works, a practice which further eats into the diminishing space allocated the rest of us.  This year the Damiens and Traceys are being invited to show by the chief hanger, their  “friend” Peter Blake RA, at a time when these types of trendy artists already enjoy so many opportunities to exhibit elsewhere. This is only the tip of the iceberg. What it doesn’t tell us is how much of the gallery space is given to Academicians. They exhibit 38% of the paintings but take up 66% of the exhibition space, excluding the courtyard (100%). If that isn’t cheating I’d like to know what is. And it doesn’t tell you that the Academicians get the prime spaces like Gallery 3, the biggest and airiest gallery, 86% of the space; Central Hall 100% and Lecture Room 100%.

So, many fewer than 700 works, 62% of the paintings get stuffed into well under a third of the space. If you’re not getting it, the message is that the Royal Academy is taking advantage of the rabble – you and me – outside the gates.

Now it starts to hurt: 529 hopefuls get one or two works each hung which represents 10% of submitting artists but now the odds of any one painting being exhibited are extended to 27/1. These odds are bad enough if your paintings are small but if you paint anything bigger than two feet square, you have to fight it out with other artists for 239 spaces. This increases the odds of being selected to 54/1. The National Lottery is more fun and doesn’t cost £18 per work to enter.

Another gripe, although I have to admit it is not a factor which discourages me from entering,  is the Summer Exhibition as a nice little earner. How about this for a jump start to a show: 13,000 paintings at £18 each totals £234,000.  Not bad as revenue before you’ve even started selling. I guess you have to deduct non-payment of the submission fee,  £108 each, for the privileged Academicians.  [No you don’t. They pay too. Ed]

It goes on: why do Academicians get capitals for their catalogue entry? And how come 93 Academicians out of a total of around 115 get selected? Presumably the rest couldn’t be bothered to enter otherwise they would have been included as well. This really stinks of establishment backscratching. Does this mean that Academicians from all of the other schools and academies in the UK are obviously inferior? And where does all this leave the self-taught artists of proven ability; those,  incidentally, who can knock spots off some of the hackneyed Academicians whose work hasn’t changed in decades.

So the arts are like every other sphere of life: it’s not what you know or how good you are, it’s instead all about living in London and being able to press the right buttons to open doors. No wonder so many deserving artists can’t be bothered with any of this and just shut it out and get on with their work.

 The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011