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2001 Summer Exhibition Reboot

The year 2015 is hailed as the key year that significantly changed the contemporary Summer Exhibition, and that is indeed true—but only up to a point. 2015 essentially rebooted an important innovation and change of attitude towards the Summer Exhibition that had occurred in 2001.

Inheriting overall responsibility for the Summer Exhibition in 2000, what was surprising to me, and indeed somewhat of a shock, was the extent to which the Exhibition was failing at every level. It was also remarkable that Council and the Membership in general seemed to be either unaware or disinterested in this level of failure. It was apparent to anyone that cared to scrutinise it: not only was the Exhibition performing badly, it was on a sharp downwards decline, which—if not arrested—would threaten its future viability. 

Explore the 2001 catalogue

How was this failure qualified? The number of entries had declined to just over 4,000 (it is currently 20,000). There was apathy at the highest level of the Membership towards being associated with the Exhibition. Significant artists who were not Academicians likewise did not want to be connected to it in any way. Visitor numbers were very low, around 80,000; sales of works was under £1 million; and the press had stopped covering it—having run out of adjectives to describe its lacklustre mediocrity.

In short, it reflected very badly on the Membership and the Academy. The Exhibitions Secretary at the time disowned it—making is appear to those outside the institution that we were running a two-tier Academy. It didn’t help that the finances were in disarray, overseen for years by a Bursar who had been charged for embezzlement.

Seeking the opinion of the small number of Academicians engaged in the Exhibition, most expressed the same opinion. To make the Exhibition better, the “send-in” had to be better. The question then was how to incentivise more good artists to submit work to a failing Exhibition that had just about run out of any credibility. The correct response, of course, was the other way around—the Exhibition had to be better in order to encourage interest. Its contents had to be curated.

Up to that point, the Exhibition was “run” by the Registry department, where there was no artistic knowledge, curatorial skill, or professional experience in running an exhibition. Its administration was entirely divorced from the Academy’s exhibitions team. I was the first person with an arts and curatorial background to manage it, and the primary requirement was to put a new professional team in place with experience of staging exhibitions.

The Summer Exhibition Committee was essentially still Council at that time. As was the tradition, on the day when the hang commenced, the Senior Hanger would “take charge” and allocate galleries to the Members of the Committee. Due to the system of rotation of Council, the selection of the Senior Hanger was carried out according to a type of Buggins’ turn: the tradition was to appoint the longest serving painter Academician to hang the exhibition. Generally, the oldest painter would pick up the reins at the moment when the work was going onto the walls, not having given any prior thought to the arrangement or content of the exhibition. Even the staunchest adherents to the Academy’s Laws could not argue that this was a recipe for success.

Among the Membership, I found a small cohort who, like me, recognised that there was a major problem and were keen to find a way around it. Working out the Council rotation for the following year, Peter Blake’s name came up. Peter and I started to discuss the Summer Exhibition and how it could be reformed, both recognising—particularly as the majority of the Membership were either unaware of the Exhibition’s perilous state, or completely disengaged—that any change would have to be brought about by stealth.

Peter, technically, should not have been the Senior Hanger that year; he wasn’t the oldest painter. By a slight reinterpretation of the finer details of the system of rotation, unbeknown to anyone else but us two, we ensured that Peter would be the longest serving painter on Council, and therefore the Senior Hanger (Fig. 1).

Our plan was to manage every aspect of the Exhibition, and we started from the autumn of the year before to shape and plan it. We decided to highlight the four different categories of entry, and to show the categories in separate galleries within the Exhibition. Previously, all work was hung together in a rather homogenised way, so that every gallery looked essentially the same. By hanging the Honorary Academicians, the Academicians, works submitted by the public (the send-in), and specially invited artists separately, differing rhythms would be established throughout the Exhibition.

The next and most difficult phase, which lasted for a number of months, was visiting artists’ studios and dealers to describe our vision, and persuade them to collaborate and exhibit work. Peter and I spent much time travelling around London. It was apparent with every artist we met how much Peter was esteemed and loved by them all. His status as one of Britain’s most significant artists, and his warmth and strength of purpose, galvanised even the most resistant to participate. The younger of the “Young British Artists”, who treated Peter as a “god” found it impossible to resist him; the established artists proved more of a challenge. For most, it was the first time they had shown work in the Summer Exhibition, and it felt like a risk. For some of the YBAs, it was their second time showing in the Academy’s Galleries. Jake and Dinos Chapman, Richard Patterson, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Gary Hume had all shown work in Sensation in 2007. 

We tirelessly chased dealers to secure strong work from our Honorary Academicians. Up to that point, they rarely exhibited at the Academy. We eventually succeeded in including some great work by Roberto Matta, Balthus, Eduardo Chillida, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Baselitz (Fig. 2).

It did feel as if we had started a bit of a revolution, and Peter and I felt quite conspiratorial at times. The final analysis was that many responded to the exhibition well. A few, particularly Academicians, mourned the loss of the safer traditions of a lacklustre Exhibition.

Peter and I still reminisce whenever we meet about that extraordinary year that changed everything. The Membership for a start; many of the invitees were later elected. We are both very proud of what we achieved, knowing too that its impact continues to reverberate.

It is worth mentioning that we had enormous fun doing it.

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Explore the 2001 catalogue