Now in its 196th incarnation, the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition is here again.
The traditional start of the Edinburgh season and usually a herald of Spring, this exhibition has encouraged, supported, presented and showcased Scottish contemporary art and architecture in all its forms and glory for the best part of 200 years.
It is with no small degree of excitement and trepidation that we look forward to the return of this show. In 2020, as the 194th Annual Exhibition was laid out around the gallery walls in preparation for installation, coronavirus finally caught up with us and the whole country went into lockdown. We all turned to screens - our phones and our home computers - to access news, culture and even work and family contact online from our living rooms and kitchen tables. It’s all too raw and recent for us to forget but it didn’t halt the march of the Annual Exhibition. With numerous works already photographed and with no access to the building to return works back to the studios of the artists from whence they came, the RSA team set about the extraordinarily large and complex task of enabling the exhibition to be viewed and purchased online.
In the following months we had some success at welcoming visitors into the gallery, albeit in a reduced capacity, but when the time came for the 195th Annual Exhibition in 2021, we were once again forced to show the exhibition on our web platforms only and not in the galleries. Turning this into a positive, the mainstay of our annual programme could now, at last, be viewed and enjoyed online across the globe. As a further enhancement, the move to Zoom enabled our visitors to nose around in the studios of our Academicians as they hosted live-streaming discussions from their creative hubs - these conversations continue to be available online as a terrific body of archive material which highlights the RSA and its Academicians at an historically momentous time and place.
A further year on and we can now, with confidence, open the doors to this celebration of art and architecture once again. Convenor Robbie Bushe RSA and Deputy Convenor Charlie Sutherland RSA have convened the 196th exhibition, filling the entire space of the RSA galleries; this year’s exhibition takes no small inspiration from both the confines and the opportunities set by the previous two exhibitions.
Exuberance and celebration fill the galleries with works from the studios of the Academicians and other contemporary practitioners, both invited and selected from the Open submission process. Works are shown in the galleries and online, and indeed there are works which can only be seen on the web platform – this will enable a further exploration of the breadth and range of the artists’ practice. Online digital works enable viewers to enjoy these presentations at their leisure with full sound and immersion capabilities.
The move to digital fell in tandem with a review of our branding. With the aid of funding from Museums Galleries Scotland, we worked with Eido Studio to structure a clearer brand for the RSA as we head towards our bicentenary. The rebrand launched in February 2022 in time for the RSA New Contemporaries and, I’m sure you agree, is refreshing for an historic institution of our age and standing. Museums Galleries Scotland also assisted with funding for our new website which enables us to reach an even wider audience and will soon support us in making a great deal of our collections more accessible online for the very first time. When you peruse these new pages filled with history, contemporary practice, our Academicians, partners, collections, support initiatives and the wider activities of the RSA, you will see that they are also packed with wonderful images.
The pandemic posed significant problems to our wider programming. Exhibitions were postponed and reprogrammed into an unknown future; some shows for 2020 slipped into 2021, then 2022 and, due to travel limitations, one or two are now scheduled for 2023. In attempting to tackle these uncertainties we had to be nimble. It was important that we didn’t cancel any opportunity but rather find ways to continue to support artists through this period. The fluidity of the programming and the ever-present risk of closure of the galleries at any time enabled us to react positively to situations with the fail-safe that we could push more varied and in-depth content online. Memorials to recently-deceased Academicians were curated into one exhibition spanning the Lower Galleries – a decision taken so that they were honoured with work which could be physically viewed rather than just as a web-based memorial. For 2022, memorials for the late Ian Redford McIntosh and Dame Elizabeth Blackadder will once again feature within the 196th Annual Exhibition.
Our RSA Metzstein Discourse, which we present in collaboration with the Scottish Government, continued throughout the Pandemic with Discourser Herman Hertzberger in 2021 and we will welcome the 2022 Discourser, Rafael Moneo, during the run of this very exhibition in April 2022. It is the season for enjoying the cornucopia of delights that the RSA has to offer and so there is also the RSA William Gillies Lecture to enjoy too – this year presented by Professor Martin Kemp HRSA.
We were acutely aware that the RSA Awards schemes would be of crucial importance during the Covid period and so the RSA meetings went online to continue the disbursement of our funds. When safe to do so, artists and architects still travelled to Florence on RSA John Kinross Scholarships. Awards to artists for research and travel continued through the RSA William Littlejohn, RSA Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, RSA David Michie and RSA Morton Awards. Prizes for works showing at the online Annual Exhibition of 2021 were awarded and highlighted via a Zoom ceremony on the opening night. Our restricted funds and exhibitions came into their own, supporting several artists from all disciplines to continue to create, present and sell new work.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Morton Trust approached the RSA to assist eight artists to chronicle their Covid Pandemic experience. The volume of applications for this Award secured a further sum of funds from the Trust to bring the number to twelve. These successful artists each made an incredible body of work which was exhibited in the RSA Lower Galleries during 2021.
And so here we are in 2022. We have just presented the work of a selection of 2020 graduates for RSA New Contemporaries. This group of emerging artists and architects hadn’t had a degree show presentation that year due to lockdown and so their work was selected online by Convenors Marion Smith and Deputy Convenor Fergus Purdie and their team. The opportunity to exhibit these works in 2022 was made even more possible by funding from our long-term exhibition supporters, Walter Scott & Partners Ltd. It was wonderful to exhibit the work and to welcome the return of our visitors to the galleries.
We are currently in the throes of selecting artists for our Scotland-wide initiative RSA Residencies for Scotland, in collaboration with venues across the nation. This year we are grateful to the late Jay Gordonsmith, whose legacy of support through the Jay and W Gordon Smith Bequest will directly support artists through this project for the next decade and more.
Lastly, we are now in a race. We hurtle towards our bicentenary in 2026 and there are so many plans and opportunities ahead of us. As we develop these, we hope that you, our members, friends, colleagues, partners, visitors, supporters and exhibitors will continue to travel on this exhilarating journey with us. Oh, there are so many goodies yet to come. Enjoy every moment!
Colin R. Greenslade