RA Summer Exhibition: open to all

This summer the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London, will open its doors to the public for the viewing of its Summer Exhibition, just as it has done so every year since the inaugural exhibition in 1769. It is the largest open exhibition in the world, receiving up to 12,000 applications for entry from international artists of all levels. The Selection and Hanging Committee have the power to whittle this number down to just over 1,000 artworks for display. However, judging by the predominantly white, male committee for the 2015 exhibition, the broad and just nature of this decision has been called into question.

The co-ordinator this summer is Michael Craig-Martin, an American artist who has worked in London since 1966, teacher to such successful artists as Damien Hirst, and elected to the Royal Academy in 2006. All ten members of the Selection Committee must be Royal Academicians, selected by fellow RAs. Of the ten RAs holding the dice this year, not one member is below the age of 65, not one is a person of colour, and a mere two are female.  This lack of diversity reflects widely on the full group of RAs and surely on the broader art world. Whether critics, gallerists, curators or artists themselves, the leading names in the art world still seem to be predominantly male, despite the leaps and bounds women have made in this field. With relation to the Royal Academy, not once in its almost 250 years of establishment has a woman been elected as president: this is a reality we are all too familiar with.

The rules of the Royal Academy state that there must be 80 RAs at any one time, new spaces opening after an RA becomes a senior member at 75. Each RA is chosen by a rigorous selection process: the title is only given to UK based artists who are thought to be world-leaders in art. Currently, this select group of artists includes the likes of Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid. In the Summer Exhibition, each RA has the opportunity to exhibit up to six pieces of work, taking up almost half the available spaces, surely making it less “open” than it is advertised. The rules also state that the 80 members must include at least eight printmakers, 12 architects and 14 sculptors: the majority of the RAs are painters. Even through visiting one of the summer shows, this bias is clearly visible in the works on display. However in this case, perhaps the bias towards painting is positive; in so many other aspects of the art world painting is often pushed to the side in favour of more ground breaking and sometimes controversial media.

The Summer Exhibition is an invaluable opportunity for the artists involved to gain exposure, with around 200, 000 visitors of an international spectrum each run, and extensive press coverage. The art works are also generally for sale, though with a £25 application price for each work, expensive delivery fees, and 30 per cent commission going to the Academy, this payment wouldn’t always be something to hold your breath over for those pricing their art at an affordable level: the possibility of one of eight prizes up to £25,000 might be, however. There may be some criticism about the commission paid to the Royal Academy, however the aim of the Summer Exhibiton has always been to provide the financial means to run the Royal Academy schools, free to those lucky enough to attend. The amount is also somewhat kinder than the average London Gallery asking price of up to 50 per cent.

The process of entering the Summer Exhibition certainly has its pit-falls along with the many benefits, but what is most astounding is the lack of equality and diversity in the revered establishment itself. In an age of scrutiny when it comes to such things – take the heavy criticisms of the recent Oscars for example, the Royal Academy could do more to ensure diversity. There is more than enough artistic talent to merit this.

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