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2011 Christopher Le Brun on Coordinating the Show

Christopher Le Brun was Chief Coordinator of the Summer Exhibition in 2011 and was elected President of the Royal Academy in December of that year. A regular exhibitor at the Summer Exhibition, in 2011, he also showed six works, including Belvedere (Fig. 1). In early 2018, Christopher Le Brun (CLB) discussed coordinating the Exhibition with Mark Hallett (MH) and Sarah Victoria Turner (SVT). 

Explore the 2011 catalogue

SVT & MH: Christopher, tell us about preparations for the Summer Exhibition in 2011, which must have begun in the spring—do you remember it having a particular atmosphere or feeling that year?

CLB: Yes. I had been gradually getting more involved with the Academy, and I think Nicholas Grimshaw, the then President, suggested me as the Coordinator. Now, the Coordinator, you realise, used to be the oldest Academician, then called the Senior Hanger. At some point, we switched it, because—given the longevity of the current membership—it’s not always a good idea. So, the RA started to select the Coordinator, to give the Exhibition a clearer dynamic and identity.

SVT & MH: How did you approach being Coordinator?

CLB: It’s never a straightforward task, to put it mildly, but early on, I had a few simple notions. One was to counterbalance two different modes of hanging. I took Gallery III, the largest and grandest gallery, and gave it a darker, warm colour after it had been white for years and tried to take a new approach to the “Academy hang”. Then, as a contrast, I asked Michael Craig Martin to create a “modern” hang. From the central galleries, you could see out of this darker room into Michael’s—he hung some of the best work by the Academicians very beautifully and sparsely.

SVT & MH: And which works were in your galleries?

CLB: I chose to bring some of the older Academicians, who often haven’t had such a good hang, back into the body of the Academy. So, on one wall there were pictures by people like Fred Cuming and Olwyn Bowey, integrated with the abstract painting, because there had been a tendency for the abstract painting to be favoured while the figurative work was cast out. 

SVT & MH: Can you say a bit more about what your role as the Coordinator actually involved, in terms of working with your colleagues and the urgency of the hang?

CLB: Yes, well one important distinction is between the Chairman and the Coordinator. The President is Chair of the Committee and although they may be more senior, they step back but sit ready like a fireman to come and douse down.

SVT & MH: The flames of discussion!

CLB: Yes. During the hanging, we have regular lunches, which are key. We all sit down together, have a glass of wine, and talk. It is a semi-formal situation, but all sorts of things come up in the two weeks that you’re doing the hanging. As an experiment, we decided to ask some journalists in to give them an insight into the process. I remember Olwyn Bowey was at one of these meetings, and she said, “The thing about the Royal Academy—it’s really a lunatic asylum”, and I could see all the journalists raising their eyebrows … 

SVT & MH: That’s the headlines for the next day.

CLB: Other things were said too. I think Michael Sandle was there and he’s a wonderful artist, but he doesn’t take prisoners. The combination of the two was quite a white-knuckle ride. But in a way, that moment was significant because I like to think it is when we stopped being frightened of the Summer Show. Instead, we were saying: “This is completely unique so let’s just enjoy it. And if anything, let’s play it up a little bit.” So, in later years, people did coloured staircases, painted walls, and my general feeling now is: what’s the worst that can happen?

SVT & MH: Those lunches—are they also moments for members to come together, eating and talking, in a way that you perhaps you don’t when working together earlier in the year?

CLB: You make friends. You learn about people, and the other key thing is the Artistic Director isn’t allowed in! It’s the Academicians’ show. There are three big exhibitions in the year, and this is the second of the three big exhibitions, and it’s completely organised by the Academicians. 

SVT & MH: What are the practical arrangements in relation to hanging the works selected? Do you tend to nominate individual Academicians to hang different rooms?

CLB: Yes, and you can do that early or late … It’s a judgement call. The big structural decisions are: where’s architecture going to go? There are some conventions: the corner rooms are often sculpture (Galleries IV and VIII), print has generally been in the Large Weston Room, and the little pictures are in the smallest room. The big paintings go into Gallery III. So there is a pattern, and you work with or against that.

SVT & MH: Are the Academicians on the Committee ever nervous about their hang?

CLB: Definitely, because they are curated rooms but they feel anxious about how much they really can control it. Their reputation is on the line. They want to make a beautiful room, but the Committee comes along and says, “It’s great but you need to put these Academicians in … because we can’t find a home for them.” It’s one of the most difficult decisions: the truth is each year some work will arrive that no one wants to hang. 

SVT & MH: I guess that is the unique form of this Exhibition, because Academicians have a right to hang up to six works.

CLB: They do. But these days, we send out an advisory note, saying we would appreciate it if you don’t submit six huge paintings; can you please try and hold it to a total of eighty square feet.

SVT & MH: We have been researching the Exhibitions in the nineteenth century and obviously the concept of the “picture of the year” was very important then. It was often that one work would capture the Press’ attention, or that people flocked to see, and that’s quite intriguing from an exhibition of generally over a 1,000 works. For you, in 2011, was there a picture of the year?

CLB: I can remember key works. It was clearly important to get Colouring Book, the monumental sculpture by Jeff Koons, for the Courtyard (Fig. 2). You need to make that space lively and a prestigious figure brings prestige. Then, we put a Keith Tyson painting in the centre of the long wall, and that was important. He was clearly a successful artist and a future candidate for the Academy. I remember also good paintings by Baselitz, Paladino, and interspersing these major figures with the work selected from the open call.

SVT & MH: Can you tell us about the importance of the Courtyard installation at the Summer Exhibition?

CLB: Well, you need it to draw the public through. Some timid visitors still think the Courtyard looks private. When I was first a member, they often had mixed exhibitions there of six or seven medium-sized pieces. Recently, we tend to get one big signature piece, which is expensive to install and sometimes sponsored by the major commercial galleries. With the Jeff Koons, there was something good about the transparency of it—of seeing Burlington House through it in photos. 

SVT & MH: Can we ask you about the wall colours? How does the paint actually shape the experience and character of the show?

CLB: It has become more and more important. I wanted to put a darker and richer background colour back into the mix, and so painted Gallery III dark grey. We managed it, except that I got a fairly sharp reaction from some Academicians. One said, “You’ve hung my work on walls the colour of a lavatory.” His paintings are designed to hang on white. But one has to remember that they are not in control of the hanging, if they’re not on the Committee. In fact, for some years, I didn’t submit major pictures to the Academy for just that reason; I submitted prints and watercolours because I just didn’t want someone to do that to my work. Although it doesn’t always work. One year, a Senior placed all six of my prints in such a way that when the caterers were coming and going to serve drinks in the gallery, my work disappeared behind a door.

SVT & MH: And isn’t there always the overwhelming nature of so many other works? How do you think the Summer Exhibition encourages artists to work on their paintings differently—to recognise the effects of display and make them stand out?

CLB: It’s very difficult to ensure the effect, but there are two approaches: one, you can choose a subject that will attract attention; or, through the sheer mechanics of the painting, like form, colour, and size, you can create impact. 

SVT & MH: Joshua Reynolds would have said the same! When you were coordinating the 2011 Exhibition, were you conscious of those links with earlier moments in British art history?

CLB: No, because it’s the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. And one that is difficult enough to solve without adding art historical context. My impression is that most of us barely think about context and just hang by eye. You do format, scale, colour, and hardly consider who the artists are. It is a formalist solution.

SVT & MH: How do all of the different galleries and rooms relate to one another, and how does moving through the succession of galleries affect the audience’s experience?

CLB: It’s such a big show that you need to refresh the journey continually. We try and make sure that each room has a different character, otherwise it can become relentless.

SVT & MH: Could you say a bit about the collectors who buy at the Summer Exhibition? And are most of the works for sale?

CLB: There are people who always buy, who have a budget, and literally come running on buyer’s day. Those at the special preview party tend to have more money to spend and are looking at the big signature pieces. They’re the trophy collectors. 

SVT & MH: Are most of the works for sale?

CLB: Yes, although there has been a trend in recent years for some of the most commercially successful artists with so-called “blue-chip” galleries to withhold the work from sale. Some of the Academicians never let their work be for sale. Given the charitable purpose of the Exhibition to support the free school, I very much regret this.

SVT & MH: What is the balance between different media in the membership today?

CLB: We have been electing more and more sculptors, which of course makes the Exhibition more difficult as sculpture is quite awkward to place and is often less saleable. Now we have more sculptor members than painters, and the laws may have to be adjusted to protect painters, whereas before it was there to protect sculptors and architects. We have also just elected Isaac Julien, so film is more represented, although that brings challenges of display as well—can we always black out a room for film and video? 

SVT & MH: How have you seen the Summer Exhibition change during your presidency?

CLB: Well, there’s an enormous interest in contemporary art now, and I think it’s a younger crowd, more fashionable. But a lot remains unchanged. When I was elected President, a friend said, “You’ve got to kill the Summer Exhibition because this is what’s dragging the Academy down, and it is a sort of mockery of modern art”. And I said, “Well, actually I’m not going to do that, and anyway, it’s not mine to do that with.”

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Explore the 2011 catalogue