The Importance of Travel, or, What I learn from visiting other arts institutions

I’ve been traveling for about a month, now—partly for pleasure, with family, and partly to finish a research and writing project about British printmaking in the eighteenth century and its connections to empire-building, astronomy, and motherhood. As I traveled through Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, where British immigrants helped create a centuries-old industry in port wine; Lisbon, the capital, where the marine museum is dedicated in large part to the exploratory voyages of Vasco da Gama; and finally London, England, center of print production and global trade throughout the eighteenth century, it was invigorating to see elements of my research come to life in the landscapes around me.

Last Friday, my godmother invited me to the Friends’ preview of the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is an annual event that showcases the work of Royal Academicians, Academy students, and honorary members from outside the United Kingdom (including Ed Ruscha, well-known Pop artist and Oklahoman). Almost everything in the exhibition is for sale, and you get a price list upon admission—which I have to admit adds substantially to the fun! The audience for the Friends’ preview is made up of a substantial number of collectors, and so the event was an opportunity to see not only the work, but the people who buy it (full disclosure: I have been one of those people—although I didn’t buy anything this year!).

The Royal Academy of Arts is in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in the heart of London. Burlington House is the home of five other learned societies: the Geological Society of London, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The sculpture in the courtyard in a piece by Chris Wilkinson RA, entitled “From Landscape to Portrait,” made of timber, stainless steel, and concrete.

As we walked around the exhibition, my godmother and I discussed the works on view, the show’s organization, and its appeal for us. Perhaps inevitably for an institution that seeks to unite artists at all levels working throughout the UK, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is not known for its avant-garde character, although it is trying to change that image. (This year, the Summer Exhibition included a film for the first time; in previous years it has been limited to painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and architecture.) The Summer Exhibition is also not the place to go if you want to get one person’s perspective on the year in art: curated by a group of Royal Academicians, the exhibition’s curatorial perspective is chaotic rather than coherent. So what is it about the Summer Exhibition that keeps me coming back to the Summer Exhibition, year after year?

View of the 2012 Summer Exhibition, from the Royal Academy of Arts website, http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.

The answer to that question, I realized as I thought about it, is three-pronged and informs my approach to the collection of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. First, the Summer Exhibition reveals the striking diversity of work being produced by Academicians and Academy students. The Royal Academy promotes a shared seriousness of purpose without demanding shared aesthetics, media, or subjects—a position that is actually a striking change from that of the eighteenth-century Academy. How does this inform my approach to the OSUMA collection? I believe that we have a responsibility to maintain a high standard in our collection — but also to recognize the vital importance of aesthetic diversity in a collection that seeks to speak meaningfully to audiences across the community.

Norman Ackroyd, “Little Brancaster,” etching and aquatint. Born in 1938, Ackroyd has been a full Academician since 1991, and his prints have been a highlight, for me, of almost every Summer Exhibition I’ve attended since I first went in 1998.

Second, the Summer Exhibition brings together familiar “faces,” and so over the fifteen years that I’ve attended the exhibition I’ve not only learned to recognize the work of individual artists, I’ve been able to watch their development. In a sense, I see a snapshot of their best work once a year, and together these snapshots trace a history of artistic thought — and of the artists’ lives. As a member of the faculty at OSU, I thrive on seeing my students develop in the same way, over years — and my hope is that, by collecting some artists’ works in depth, we might give visitors a similar awareness. But more pragmatically, the annual faculty show, when presented in the Postal Plaza, will become a venue for visitors to contemplate the development of our own small academy and its faculty over time. I hope it will inspire our audience with the same sense of curiosity and anticipation that I get each spring leading up to the RA’s Summer Exhibition.

Through Wilkinson’s temporarily-installed sculpture, a view of the permanent monument to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first president of the Royal Academy, sculpted by Alfred Drury RA.

Which leads me to my final point: the importance of community. The Royal Academy, despite its name, is an independent organization run by and for artists in order to “present a broad range of visual art to the widest possible audience; to stimulate debate, understanding and creation through education; and to provide a focus for the interests of artists and art-lovers.” The continuing success of this organization over centuries and through dramatic ideological and social change reminds me of the importance of flexibility in an institution’s mission—but even more importantly, of how critical it is that the constituents of an institution are fundamentally involved in its governance.  At the OSUMA, we have tried to ensure this involvement through the creation of various governance groups, our ongoing visitor surveys, and our participation in the university curriculum.

Community will also be reflected in our first exhibition of the fall semester. The Influence of Oklahoma: Modernism from the Collection of Kelly Knowlton (Aug 20 – Sept 21, 2012) will present works by artists who were faculty at colleges and universities across the state, demonstrating the vitality of our own academies and the diversity of their production throughout the twentieth century. Stay tuned for more on that exhibition, right here on the Collection blog this summer.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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