2020 has been an exceptional challenge for everyone. As galleries and museums responded to the COVID-19 crisis, so too did the nation’s youngest artists. In what for now is an online exhibition (a selection will be displayed on-site in autumn) the Young Artists’ Summer Show at the Royal Academy of Art demonstrates just how incredible this response has been. A staggering 17,700 submissions were received, up from just over 6000 last year, and include painting, drawing, video, photography and sculpture.
Of these, 392 have been selected by this year’s judging panel and all can be viewed online. It is the exhibition’s second year running but builds on a centuries-old tradition of education and, of course, the Royal Academy’s long-running annual Summer Exhibition.
Not long after the RA reopened its doors to the public, we were able to speak with Mary Ealden, Project Manager – Young People and Teachers, Royal Academy of Arts.
Trisha D’Hoker: The RA of course has a long tradition of education, why do you think it’s taken so long to host something like this? Or has it been done in the past?
Mary Ealdon: There has been a diverse Learning programme at the RA for over twenty years now, catering to a range of audiences, including both primary and secondary schools, families, teachers, young people and individuals with special educational needs. As well, the RA had hosted an annual online exhibition called the A-Level Summer Exhibition online for a number of years prior to the Young Artists’ Summer Show (YASS) being established, which was set up to engage young people with the annual Summer Exhibition. YASS is an extension of this original project.
TDH: How did YASS come about then?
ME: Robin Hambro, who is an artist and philanthropist, and who has been a donor to the RA’s Learning programme for a number of years now, had the idea to establish an exhibition similar to the Summer Exhibition, but for young people, to signify hers, and the RA’s commitment to championing young artists and the importance of art in education. At a time when art is being overlooked in the national curriculum, both Robin Hambro and the RA wanted to provide teachers, schools and young artists with a platform from which to showcase the talent of young artists across the UK and beyond, and emphasise the importance of art in young people’s lives.
TDH: How does the process work? There seemed to be an incredible amount of submissions; what do you look for? Or is it indefinable?
ME: Any young person aged 5 – 19 years old, and who attends a school in the UK or a British International School overseas, is able to enter as long as their school is registered first. Young artists are able to enter up to three artworks in any medium, along with a short statement for each. Each year we have a different panel of expert artist judges who judge the works – one panel for primary and one panel for secondary. The judging panels consist of Royal Academicians, RA Schools (the RA’s postgraduate art school) students and RA colleagues. The judging takes place over a number of days and is no easy task! This year the judges were really impressed with the high standard of work submitted across the board and found it really hard to choose the final selection. The judges were looking for original ideas and artistic abilities, but at the same time, it really depends on the body of works as a whole, and the final selection was made with the physical and online exhibitions in mind.
TDH: Have you seen any themes emerge? Such as the revival of figuration which has featured so prominently in exhibitions lately? Or is there a natural impulse towards figuration when we are young?
ME: ‘Identity’ is a theme that is often explored, particularly with older students, and so as a consequence, figuration is a natural response. I think this year submissions were influenced by COVID, as the submission process ran from January – April 2020, and so lockdown happened halfway through. As a consequence, and very interestingly, it seems many young people turned to art as a way of recording, understanding and processing the unusual situation they found themselves in, often depicting themselves or their family members in their responses. Many young people still look to historical artists and artworks for inspiration, but often translate what they see into a contemporary visual language, which is understandable.
TDH: Were you able to meet the young artists whose work was selected?
ME: We will meet the young artists whose artworks have been selected when the physical exhibition takes place in the Autumn (dates TBC). It’s a wonderful experience to see how the young people react to seeing their work hanging at the Royal Academy! A number of them will have never been to the RA before, so it’s a very empowering moment for them.
TDH: From your experience, what does art mean for them?
ME: Art plays a number of important roles in different ways to different people. For young people, it can be used as a way of exploring identity, of understanding our own feelings and emotions and how to articulate them. For some, art can be a welcome release from the pressures of the academic subjects that are taught at school. It can be used as a way to solve problems, to think about things and approach things in a less prescriptive way. And of course, it is empowering – making art and looking at art should be a positive experience.
TDH: How does the RA continue with or build on this engagement established with the entrants?
ME: There are twelve prize winners each year that are awarded with a voucher for art materials for the student and a practical workshop at the student’s school for their class, so this is one way that will enable us to continue to engage with the young people and their teachers beyond the project. When the RA is able to welcome groups back into the building again, we will continue with our free schools offer and our programme for teachers which will enable school groups to visit the RA and take part in exhibition tours and practical workshops. We also provide a number of resources on our website for young people, families and teachers to engage with – including online exhibition tours, downloadable teaching resources, podcasts, videos and how-to guides all related to our exhibitions and collection. These have been created to provide a further level of engagement with the RA.
TDH: With regards to reaching young people generally, do you think their natural affinity for online life will make them more disposed to engaging with art in any way now? I’m wondering whether this current crisis has maybe affected the other end, meaning that we adults and institutions have needed to up our online engagement, and thus be more inclusive for young people? What are your thoughts on this?
ME: Another of our projects is called attRAct which is a free, year-long programme for young people aged 16 – 18 and which includes practical workshops designed to teach young people about new ways of thinking about and making art, as well as careers-based sessions offering advice about next steps. Usually of course, the group would meet at the RA approximately three times a month, but since lockdown, we have been meeting weekly via Zoom and setting them weekly practical challenges to respond creatively to. Their responses have been posted on the attRAct Instagram profile @attract_ra and we have actually recently been shortlisted for a Kids in Museums Award for this work. Naturally, we have had to adapt the way in which we engage with the students on attRAct to ensure that we are still connecting as a group and that the students are still thinking creatively and learning new skills. The only thing that’s changed is that they are attending the workshops from their bedrooms rather than at the RA itself, but in a lot of ways, this has been a positive change – we have their undivided attention, they feel more empowered to respond with ideas in conversations because they are in a comfortable environment, and they are using objects and items around them to make work, which immediately captures an element of their personalities. It has definitely affected the way that we engage with young people, but in a positive way. A move towards online workshops will mean that we are able to engage with a much larger group of young people, schools, families and hopefully more.