Discovering the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

by Vincenza Napoli

Yes, it's a big one. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is celebrating its 250th year and who better to curate than the fabulous Grayson Perry? Situated in the centre of Mayfair in a 17th century mansion, Burlington House, this world-renowned art institution’s annual Summer Exhibition showcases art from across the world in every medium, subject matter and style imaginable.

Having visited the exhibition myself, I can attest that it is well worth weaving through the hordes of tourists on your way through Piccadilly!

What’s the deal with the Royal Academy?

While other museums and galleries such as the Tate or the Met are run by academics, the Royal Academy’s tradition of an artist-centred administration establishes it as an institution unlike any other.

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 by artists and architects for artists and architects, referred to as ‘Royal Academicians’. Pretty fancy sounding, eh? While it may sound fancy, its aim is relatively humble.

The RA School boasts notable alumni such as Britain’s most famous landscape and seascape painter JMW Turner and architect Sir John Soane. You might know Soane as the architect of the Bank of England whose extensive art collection and home was a finalist for Art Fund’s 2017 Museum of the Year.

The Royal Academy. Image via Artlyst

And the Summer Exhibition?

The Summer Exhibition opened for the first time in 1768 and has run every year since without interruption. Initially referred to simply as ‘The Exhibition’, it was established as a place where members of the Academy could exhibit their works with one another to compare and improve their skills.

Seems like a nice idea right? Turns out that an exhibition designed for artists to compare themselves to each other actually fueled the fire for some historical rivalries like that between Turner and fellow landscape artist John Constable. Go figure.

Today, the Summer Exhibition is the largest open submission art exhibition in the world, which means that any artist from the public can submit their work. Submissions to the Summer Exhibition are non-restrictive of age, country or status in the art world, which is ironically a far cry from many other open submissions. The modern Summer Exhibition also serves as a fundraiser, as all of the pieces on display are for sale, and with 30% of the proceeds donated to the Royal Academy Schools.

The 166th Summer Exhibition, 1934. Image via The Royal Academy

What can you expect?

This year, thousands of applications were narrowed down by a selection committee of artists and architects. The artworks have been carefully curated by individuals of the committee, and the result is wall after wall covered from dado to cornice - a fancy term meaning the entire centre of the wall - in artworks that wouldn’t normally be associated with each other.

I don’t know about you, but an exhibition managed start-to-finish by artists and architects sounds pretty interesting to me. But if that doesn’t sound intriguing enough, there’s a bar in the centre of the main room so you can sip some bubbly as you peruse the galleries. A great day out if you ask us!

Who is exhibiting?

The uniqueness of the exhibition speaks for itself, with pieces by art world giants hung alongside those of emerging artists.

This year, you will find a sculpture by Sir Anish Kapoor. You will also find works by David Hockney, Wolfgang Tillmans and Tracey Emin (you know, the lady who's married to a rock). Hung alongside such notable artists are our very own Artfinder artists. Have a little peek below to see who made the cut.

Having visited hundreds of art exhibitions in the UK and elsewhere, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition stands out as the most unique I’ve visited to date. Each room is its own experience, with different coloured walls and a new assortment of seemingly unrelated artworks covering every inch of available space. So what are you waiting for, head over to Piccadilly!

Check out some of the Artfinder artists who are exhibiting this year!

*Cover image via Dave Perry


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