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2008 Tracey Meets Kitaj

The Summer Exhibition in 2008 was the first whose operation and hang I experienced as the Royal Academy’s Secretary and Chief Executive.1 I still remember how different the Exhibition appeared when viewed from within the organisation as a member of staff, instead of from outside as a member of the visiting public.

Explore the 2008 catalogue

First, I had no idea how seriously the majority of Royal Academicians take the Summer Exhibition. For many, it is, as it was for the original Royal Academicians, one of the reasons why they like being a member. For the older Academicians and those unrepresented by a commercial gallery, it is an opportunity for work to be seen by the general public and, more especially, sold. Each Academician is allowed to enter six works and generally up to half the works that are exhibited are sold. Since that includes the great majority of prints and more conservative paintings, showing work in the Summer Exhibition is a significant source of income (six works at, say, £15,000 each, with the artist keeping 70 per cent, provides an annual income).

But, it is not just a financial benefit. Many Academicians are committed to a belief in the democratic benefits of an exhibition, which can show a wide range of artwork outside the limitations of the commercial art world, free of the snootiness which often pervades it and its addiction to the latest fashion. Artists can show their work in the Summer Exhibition alongside their peers, old friends from art school, conservative work as well as the latest fashion, prints as well as paintings. It’s a community constructed differently from the more fashion-conscious, media-hyped, contemporary art world.

Second, I had no idea how complicated the organisation of the Exhibition is. The Summer Exhibition Committee had relatively recently been separated out from the governing Council in order to be able to concentrate solely on its task of managing, selecting, and hanging the Summer Exhibition. The meetings were chaired by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the then President, and Humphrey Ocean had already been chosen as the so-called Coordinator, responsible for the overall shape of the Exhibition, for convening the team of RAs involved in the hang, and for acting as their spokesperson. This, too, was a relatively recent innovation, replacing the Senior Hanger, who had simply been the most senior person on the Committee.  

In March 2008, paintings were still submitted by queuing outside our building in Burlington Gardens, where a team of art handlers put the work into temporary storage before submitting it to the Summer Exhibition Committee, which met for the best part of a week in March, fortified in their labours by beef tea, to examine the work of every single person who had paid the £25 entry fee. I was allowed to attend lunch only, where there were frequent complaints about the poor quality of the majority of the work submitted, a complaint, which, I suspect, is as old as the Exhibition itself.

In 2008, we made a mistake in giving over too many of the galleries to micro-exhibitions, reducing the availability of space for the so-called send-in. Tracey Emin, a recently elected RA (she was elected on 27 March 2007), had been asked to install Gallery VIII, the last in the long sequence of smaller galleries, which she did independently of the committee, showing works by artists of her own generation (Fig. 1). Ron Kitaj died on 27 October 2007. We discussed how to commemorate him and decided to allocate Gallery I, the first in the sequence of galleries, to his memory. This took two galleries out of circulation for the general hang and put disproportionate pressure on the others.  

In the two weeks devoted to hanging the galleries, when, again, I was invited to lunch, I remember the combative atmosphere. It became clear that the Exhibition is not really a collective exercise, but one in which each of the RAs responsible for hanging the galleries jockeys to select particular work according to their own aesthetic, leaving one of the older RAs to hang the rump of work selected in a more mixed, so-called Academy hang.  

Since coming to the Academy, I have always liked this aspect of the Summer Exhibition: it is not really a group show, hung by a committee to a single set of general artistic precepts, but, instead, a set of individual galleries, each hung according to the tastes and sensibilities of the person who is responsible for that particular gallery and who selects work from the general submission to show in their gallery.

What was the end result? 

Tracey Emin’s Room was very different in character from the others, dominated by In the Midst of Quietness Branched Thoughts Murmur, a large ceramic piece by Rachel Kneebone, Ruined, a graphic, sexualised drawing by Tracey herself, and Pink Narcissus, a cluster of pink ceramic penises by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. This represented the arrival of the Young British Artists in force in the Summer Exhibition, but, ten years after Sensation, the audience for the Summer Exhibition was relatively unshockable, although one letter of complaint recorded how “the room which Tracey Emin ‘curated’ is obviously revolting and appalling.”2

Gallery IV was hung by Humphrey Ocean and was dominated by a stainless steel ping-pong table by Ron Arad and, unusually, a painted road sign of “a woman at work” (not the more usual man) by Margaret Calvert, the great typographer who, under Jock Kinneir, had been responsible for establishing the pictograms of British road signs in the late 1950s (Fig. 2).

There was a big work by Anthony Caro in the Courtyard. The Small Weston Room was still full of smaller, more conservative works as it traditionally had been. And Architecture was in Gallery VI.

In 2008, as in every other year since, the character of the Exhibition was dominated by a small number of key works, normally those selected by the Coordinator, which are the ones the reviewers write about and historians remember. The rest gets forgotten.  

  1. I started in September 2007 and meetings of the Summer Exhibition Committee were held on the first Tuesday of the month between Tuesday 2 October 2007 and Tuesday 29 April 2008.↩︎

  2. Unsigned letter, dated 29 July 2008, addressed to The Summer Exhibition Department, RAA.↩︎

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Explore the 2008 catalogue