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The Great Spectacle

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, ‘Exhibition Room, Somerset House,’ 1808. Engraving. (Image: Wikimedia commons)

If we want to learn about the history and heritage of the British art world, we need look no further than the Royal Academy. Celebrating its 250th anniversary, the RA boasts the longest running exhibition of contemporary art in the world. It is a significant achievement and who better to talk to about it than Sarah Turner, deputy director of research at the Paul Mellon Centre and co-curator of the upcoming exhibition The Great Spectacle at the RA.

The Great Spectacle will chart the history of the Summer Exhibition from the first ever exhibition in 1769 to today, displaying a select number of works from Summer Exhibitions over the last two and a half centuries. The visitor will then seamlessly pass from The Great Spectacle into the 2018 Summer Exhibition. It should prove to be an amazing way to explore the history of art display in this country.

So, what is so important about the Summer Exhibition? “No other exhibition has had that unbroken history, careers have been made or broken at the Summer Exhibition, it has helped form artistic identities, friendship groups and rivalries such as that between Constable and Turner” says Sarah Turner. It’s a story she is passionate to share.

The history of the Summer Exhibition has shaped the art world into what we know and love (or love to hate) today. The modern Summer Exhibition today is just one of hundreds of major art fairs, but “it really was the only exhibition in town for the 18th and 19th century. There was nothing quite like it in terms of its scale, its regularity, it was a main fixture in the London season.”

Whilst today it is one of many contemporary art shows, it is amazing to think that it was the Summer Exhibition that started it all, in Britain at least. “What has become really apparent is that until the mid-twentieth century and the rise of private art dealers, there wasn’t really an art market and a dealer system for members of the public to buy works of art until fairly recently, so the Summer Exhibition, as this annual place to display and sell works of art, was so important for artists to make money and earn their crust.”

The contemporary art world can often seem inaccessible, it can be difficult to feel at home in a crowd of millionaire collectors and eccentric artists, that is if you even get an invite. Sarah Turner values the Summer Exhibition because at its core it is not just a great spectacle but also a democratic one. “Sometimes over 300,000 people went to see the Summer Exhibition in its heyday. The audience has always been made up of a cross section of society from servants to the king, it truly is a public event. The way that art meets its audience in the Summer Exhibition provides us with a unique lens to think about the art world over a long span of time.”

Amazingly enough the Summer Exhibition has hardly changed over its 250-year history. “At their core the 2018 show retains the essential ingredients of the 1769 show; it is still an annual exhibition of open submission, selected by a jury and hung by a committee, so in a way it remains fundamentally the same although the growth in scale is phenomenal. 59 artists were featured in the first Summer Exhibition and now over 1000 works are hung, with up to 15,000 works considered by the jury, it's always had that mix of amateur and professional works.”

Whilst the Summer Exhibition may not have changed, the world around it has. For many the RA’s Summer Exhibition is far from the cutting edge of the contemporary art world and it is no longer the place for up and coming artists to make their names. I ask Turner what she thinks about this change: “the Summer Exhibition’s critical reception has had rather a mixed fortune particularly in the 20th century when many key modern artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Francis Bacon didn’t want to have anything to do with it, it will always have that connection with the establishment.”

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, August, 2017. (Image: Gareth Williams)

However, Turner wouldn’t write off the Summer Exhibition just yet. “Over the last fifty years there has been some very lazy criticism of the RA, critics say the same old thing and some of the criticism is really boring." She recognises the cyclical nature of the Summer Exhibition and perhaps its inherent eccentricity. “It’s important to remember that the RA is a Private Institution. The Summer Exhibition is run by artists for artists so it has an element of wayward eccentric independence. Recently quite a number of prominent contemporary artists have become RA’s, this often happens as artists get a little bit older, the wild childs of the YBA generation who are now in their fifties and artists like Tracy Emin are now very prominent royal academicians. Grayson Perry is the coordinator for the Summer Exhibition 2018 and artists with huge international reputations like Anselm Kiefer are now also displaying at the RA and this is perhaps encouraging people to look at the Summer Exhibition differently.” Perhaps every artistic movement needs an establishment to rebel against, change and eventually join and in this way the RA has an important role to play in the art world, it’s an institution that “looks back and forward.”

In Turner’s mind, the Summer Exhibition undoubtedly still has a place in today’s world; "the art world has become so professionalised, art fairs are often curated now with super star curators, so the Summer Exhibition is an important opportunity for a show to be hung by a group of artists not based on a theme but on a visual response to the work, I think the Summer Exhibition is in rude health.”

“The visitor figures are also phenomenal. It is still hugely popular with the public, the art world and the art press can be ferociously snobby about it, but people still want to go, and people buy from it.”

Whether or not the Summer Exhibition is still relevant today, the RA has undergone some major developments in the last year to bring the institution up to date. There will now be spaces for architectural displays and free displays of the Academy’s permanent collection, as well as more space for the RA schools and learning programme. For Turner it’s an extremely welcome development, “The academy has an amazing archive and library which is such a gem, and it’s great that the collection will be more prominent. Most people know the Academy for its exhibitions, but it has its own collection that’s largely made up by works given by artists. When you become an academician, you have to submit what’s called your diploma work. The collection tells a really interesting history across the lifespan of RA’s 250 years, so it will be great if those works will be on display.”

The RA has a 999-year lease for which they pay £1 a year so the RA clearly has a long future ahead of it to complement its rich history. To help forge this new history it is important to Sarah Turner that we understand this history that underpins the art world today. It is this sense of history that she wants visitors to take away with them when they visit The Great Spectacle; “in this age of Frieze and numerous other art fairs, we think that these art fairs and exhibitions are something new and contemporary but this exhibition gives us a sense that mass exhibitions of contemporary works of art have been going on in Britain for years and before that in Paris, so there is a really important exhibition history which can tell us a lot about how we do art history now. In the past every artist has been contemporary.”

The Great Spectacle promises to be a fascinating tour into the history of the RA Summer Exhibition and the history of the art world itself, a history that continues to guide and shape our present day.

The Great Spectacle is on at the RA from 12th June – 19th August 2018. A book and an open access digital research project called The RA Chronicle, which has digitised the past 250 Summer Exhibitions catalogues, will accompany the exhibition.

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