The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA) has now been running for over 250 years and celebrated this notable sestercentennial birthday back in 2018. Throughout this time, the show’s run has been unbroken with yearly shows being put on throughout such exceptional times as two world wars. It was the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that knocked the annual exhibition for the first time from its normal June-time slot.
The Summer Exhibition is back this year, but delayed by several months, which has required it to take on the temporary new name of ‘The Winter Exhibition’. The exhibition, as usual, comprises of works from all kinds of artists, from those exhibiting for the first time, to those that are famous within their fields. The works are selected and then hung by Royal Academicians, This has been the way in which the show has run since 1769.
The show this year feels noticeably different to that of previous years, however, and especially compared to 2018 250-year anniversary, curated by Grayson Perry, show where the packed walls were painted in a riot of colour. The walls, which are normally hung floor to ceiling in the tradition of the original show, this year seem bare and, whilst the empty galleries due to social distancing measures allow for great picture taking, the show lacks its normal air of excitement, celebration and bustle.
Different rooms within the exhibition are curated by different RA artists. Due to the postponement of the show this year, architect and winner of the RIBA Gold Medal, David Adjaye was unable to curate the architecture room, and fellow architect Eva Jiřičná was asked to step in last-minute as a replacement. A lack of long-term curation insight has left the 2020 exhibition with a disjointed feeling and poorly themed rooms.
Given the unprecedented changes caused by the pandemic, the increasing worry about climate change, and the important and ongoing conversations that need to be had about how black lives matter, relatively few artists elected to take on these pertinent topics as their subject matter. In fact, the show seems to be less challenging that those of recent years, suggesting that entrants might have resorted to the creative process as a form of escapism, In the past, the RA, and The Summer Exhibition in particular, has faced criticism for being outdated and not forward thinking. During the 1950s, the Academy battled between the ‘traditionalist’ and the ‘modernist’, as the New Realists took to the stage, and art became less focused on the French style and more on the ‘American Abstract Expressionist’. At first, the modern art was renegaded to the distant Room VIII, but the RA saw that they had to embrace the changing times and gradually mixed the old and new style works together.
Whilst, in its very existence this year, the 2020 ‘Winter Exhibition’ is somewhat of a triumph, it does not reflect its times, Perhaps, if able to continue next year, through the profits of this year’s show or government assistance, the exhibition will be able to evolve to do what all good art should – ask questions about our ever changing world and existence.
Students applying to study Fine Art or the History of Art might find it useful to study the history of the Summer Exhibition or how other galleries and museums have weather the pandemic,