RSA Annual Exhibition

May 2002

Publication: The Sunday Herald

RSA Annual Exhibition

McLellan Galleries, Glasgow


As institutions go, they do not come much more venerable than the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) - currently presenting its 176th annual exhibition.  Because of ongoing work on the Playfair Project the exhibition takes place not in the RSA’s usual home at the Mound in Edinburgh but in Glasgow’s McLellan Galleries.  For an organisation with such an East of Scotland constituency the upheaval - for at least some of its members - seems to have been enormous.


As the RSA Secretary, Bill Scott, points out the venue provides an opportunity to compare and contrast the work with that of the Royal Glasgow Institute (RGI) which also uses the galleries as an annual exhibiting venue.  But, in truth, what separates the majority of the work in both societies is, by and large, the domicile of the exhibitors which displays a distinct east-west divide.


It will not be news to many people to learn that there are very few surprises in this year’s show.  Notwithstanding the high quality of work by a number of key artists and architects such as Will Maclean, Joyce W. Cairns, Richard Murphy, Ian McKenzie Smith, Elaine Shemilt, Doug Cocker, Arthur Watson, Geoff Uglow and Ian McCulloch, by and large the RSA remains a bastion of artistic conservatism and aesthetic stasis.  This is backed by an implicit and explicit belief that good art can only be developed within the traditional media of painting, sculpture and printmaking.


In fairness, the RSA do host an annual students’ show where more experimental works are given some space but here, among the current membership and other exhibiting artists, one could leave with the impression that most developments in the past half-century of artistic practice had not taken place.  This is reflected by the fact that, for example, none of the generation represented by such artists as Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Callum Innes, Anne Bevan, Nathan Coley and a host of others is present.  Either artists such as these fail to submit work or, doing so, it is rejected.  In either case the RSA is left with a major problem because it is manifestly failing in any moral obligation to represent a true picture of contemporary art in Scotland.


These lacunae call into question the remit, purpose and function of such an organisation.  For, to many, it may seem to represent only its membership and not that of a wider community.  And as such, it begins to look like a closed shop of comfortable living-room art aimed at a section of society which does not like too many upsets, aesthetic or otherwise.


Apologists for the RSA may argue that other organisations (such as the Scottish Society of Artists) have the role of embracing the experimental and the controversial.  But this is not the point.  Good art, whatever the medium, must have its place in this pre-eminent forum in Scotland. And it must surely be able to embrace not only universal values and artistic truths but also the agony of current and pressing global issues.  Largely sealed off from such concerns the RSA is beginning to look increasingly outmoded.