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How the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition works in six simple steps

Eddy Frankel

Centuries before Lovebox, Street Feast and outdoor cinemas dominated London’s summer, there was the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This year it celebrates its 248th year. Here’s how it works in six steps:

1. You submit some art

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is an open-call art exhibition, which means that any living artist can submit works for consideration. It costs £25 a go, though, and you can only submit two pieces, so you’d better have £50 ready and be damn sure you’re not awful at this art malarkey. It’s the world’s biggest exhibition of its kind, and this year they capped it at a whopping 12,000 entries, which were submitted digitally for the first round of judging – sort of like the Royal Academy going on Tinder.

2. Your art gets judged

The Summer Exhibition Selection and Hanging Committee is made up of people from the Council of Academicians, which gives the whole thing a weird, kinky ‘Da Vinci Code’ vibe. The committee swiped right on 2,000 works of art in the first round, which were brought into the Academy and then evaluated face-to-face, whittling them down to 1,240 works to be exhibited. By our calculations, that leaves 10,760 rejected pieces of art that have now been slashed at with a Stanley knife in a fit of artistic pique and dumped in a bin. 

3. Someone decides where it's all gonna go

This year’s curator is sculptor Richard Wilson. Alongside deciding how to organise and hang the whole thing, Wilson has chosen to exhibit works by over 15 artistic duos, including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

4.  While drinking turbo-Bovril

There are a lot of odd traditions associated with the RA Summer Exhibition. The best one is that Academicians knock back fortified beef drinks during the exhibition hang. It’s made of Bovril, sherry and water and is served up by red-collared RA staff. Curating: one of the few fields where you do your job better if you’re drunk (on Bovril).

5. You do some varnishing

Varnishing Day took place last Tuesday ahead of this summer’s opening. Traditionally, this was the exhibitors’ last chance to go put some finishing touches to their paintings before the exhibition opened to the public. But these days it’s turned into a bit of a party, with the artists doing a procession down the road and living it large with well-wishers, all soundtracked by a steel band, for some ungodly reason.

6. Finally you sell some art

The majority of works on show are for sale, with prices starting at just £50. See something you like? Just go up to the sales desk and tell them what you want, then they’ll put a little red sticker next to the work to show that an offer has been made. This year, for the first time, the RA is also selling some works online. It’s cheapest if you find a print or work that comes in an edition, rather than a one-off. The Summer Exhibition is an amazing chance for unknown artists to get their work out into the world, and the perfect opportunity for you to snap up an art bargain.

Watch our quick-fire fact file about this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition:

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