Graeme Todd RSA is the Convenor of the 194th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy
How far things can travel in a short space of time…
When I got home that day, there was a large white envelope from the Royal Scottish Academy lying at a rakish angle on the blue patterned rug in our hallway. Opening it up, I was floored to find that it was from RSA president Joyce Cairns, telling me that in my absence at the last assembly, I had been elected to stand as convenor for the Annual Exhibition 2020. She was asking me if I would be willing to take on the responsibility of helming this mammoth show which is, she wrote, a lot of work with a lot of responsibility - but always enjoyable! It is also a mark of assurance and trust in the recipient’s ability to take on such a challenge. My initial thoughts were that this was daunting. But it’s not very often, if ever at all, that an artist is honoured by their peers in this way and once I accepted the role I started to think about what I could bring to it.
The Open Art submission brings, and the clue is in the name here, a very large and diverse body of work to be picked over and selected. Having worked on the hanging committee over the last couple of years, I was aware of the scale of the undertaking after the re- introduction of the Open Art element and the complex balancing act that has to be performed to make this large and diverse exhibition work as a holistic entity in the RSA galleries - one that can be understood on as many different levels as there are visitors. There is the part known as the ‘viewers portion’, that doesn’t belong to the convenor, curator or selector and this is the prerogative of the viewer. It is theirs to do with as they please. It is how they come to the work, it is what they bring and what they take away.
I identified this moment as an opportunity to bring in a new, or more accurately perhaps, a re-emerging element – one to add to the twin peaks of the Open and the Annual. As this year’s convenor I worked towards inviting a small group of artists to complement the main body of the exhibition.
I asked Richard Walker, Maria Chevska, Angus Hood, Liz Adamson and Steven Cox to show alongside one another to present work that answers to a common call – an invitation to ‘an idea of indoor space, a room, sharing ideas around presence, occupancy, the intimate, the hand-made, the provisional, the everyday’ that came as a tacit response to the scale of the galleries to form a gradient between the cavernous and a more intimate kind of space – perhaps just like the one you are sitting in now as you read this text - one where dialogues between artworks can be detected as conversations formed within a more intimate context - sometimes we must whisper to one another. Keep it between us… beauty, breadth and brilliance; amplitude, elevation and handsomeness; sublimity, and transcendence…
Moving through the RSA, one can experience the context of the ‘viewer's portion’ and how it unfolds as the visitor measures those spaces, one by one with their bodies and minds both in an intimate or shared situation, together or in solitary contemplation.
Walking through the galleries on the Open selection day, I was aware of these rooms that were essentially conceived to show art in, and the relationships between those architectural spaces and the great sheltering building that contains them. Now silent, they protect the works held inside for safe keeping.
These great annual gatherings and exchanges are about more than any one individual and of course, in the end, the Annual was not be hung and arranged by myself alone – it would have greatly depended on the judgement and experience of the hanging committee - I had asked each member of this year’s committee to invite an artist to take part, and I hope that this might become a continuing feature of Annual exhibitions giving as it does the hanging committee a greater investment in the shape of the show in the larger sense.
This year invited artists and invitees were: Mary Bourne inviting Naomi Ojima, Calum Colvin inviting Leena Nammari, Doug Cocker inviting Toby Paterson, Paul Furneaux inviting Iain Patterson, Ian Howard inviting Rory Donaldson and Glen Onwin inviting Patricia Macdonald and also many thanks to Kate Downie.
I would like to thank the invited artists and the RSA staff for their great positivity and support towards making my convenorship this year such a rewarding experience. I would also like to thank all those who submitted their work to the Academy from the Open submission, it is always heartening to see so many people give of their best each year. And, of course, to all the RSA members whose works form the spine of these great events.
A journey of an exhibition that started with a letter lying on a patterned rug in a hallway has become a virtual screen experience. Art in extreme circumstances finds a way to emerge and to continue, and as we find ways to show the Annual work without physically gathering together, we can still share the experience in other ways. Our spirits are still uplifted and we can still be inspired and have conversations. Art plays an essential part in our journey in these difficult times.
I hope you enjoy this year’s Annual exhibition – we certainly won’t forget the circumstances that brought it to you.
Take care and stay safe.
Graeme Todd RSA