This year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy will centre on diversity, moving the focus away from familiar European artists and instead “open our doors to the world”.
The 2017 edition of the Summer Exhibition, which next year celebrates its 250th anniversary and is still the world’s largest open-submission art exhibition, was curated by painter and printmaker Eileen Cooper.
Cooper, known best for her colourful, stylised paintings of women, had her first work selected for the Summer Exhibition as a student in the 1970s. She said she wanted to display artists who have never come close to the Royal Academy in the past.
“We couldn’t think of one slogan to sum it up, which is a real drawback,” Cooper recently told the Financial Times. “Our aim is to bring something fresh to the show by finding emerging talent and recruiting more artists from countries as disparate as [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo, Peru, Spain and India, as well as Turkey and Kurdistan.”
She added: “I don’t want to focus on personal politics but we have deliberately looked further afield from the home nations. This year we have an exhibition that’s very rich in terms of geography – we’ve tried to open our doors to the world.”
Entering the Royal Academy’s imposing courtyard, visitors are greeted by Windsculpture VI, a colourful fibreglass sculpture by the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare, who was also on the selection panel. Cooper described it as a wonderful work, “exploring the notion of harnessing motion and freezing it in a moment of time”.
This year there were 12,000 digital entries, which were narrowed down by the committee to the 1,200 works now hanging in the show. A neon sign of the words “And I said I Love You!” by Tracey Emin, a vast painting by Sean Scully, suspended silver jugs by Cornelia Parker and other pieces by Wolfgang Tillmans, Anish Kapoor and Phyllida Barlow stand alongside amateur artworks by members of the public that made the selection panel’s cut.
In a first for the exhibition, this year will have a performance piece – by Alana Francis – as part of the selection. It will take place on Friday nights in the gallery, involving intimate one-to-one spoken word pieces to individuals.
The show also includes includes three film-makers, with an entire room dedicated to Isaac Julien’s work Western Union: Small Boats, which deals with the subject of refugees travelling across the Atlantic, as well as a new photography series by provocateurs Gilbert and George.
Next year the summer exhibition will celebrate its 250th anniversary. Despite drawing in an annual 200,000 visitors, it has often been scorned by critics, particularly for its inclusion of works by members of the public alongside the RA academicians. All the work in the show is for sale, with the proceeds going towards the RA schools programme. In the 1800s the Morning Post described it as a “parade of the hackneyed and incompetent amongst the little dirty paltry aristocracy of the Royal Academy”.
Cooper, however, said the all-inclusive nature of the show should be embraced. “I believe in the Summer Exhibition,” she told the Financial Times. “I think it is churlish to be negative about something that supports the next generation.”
• The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy, London W1J, 13 June – 20 August.
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