Success or Failure?

The Selection Process of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - Part one.

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When I was a teenager I went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I loved it. There was such a mix of artwork by such a mix of known and unknown artists. From giant canvases to framed oval miniatures to art so abstract it seemed like anyone could do it. I remember falling in love with the idea that anyone can enter and the experience layered itself onto me and hasn't been removed since. In my twenties, in the late nineties I was living in London and to my absolute astonishment my mother got in touch to tell me that a family friend had got tickets for the Summer Exhibition private view but was unable to go and would I like to go with her? At the time I was working for a fashion company on Piccadilly and the day before we went I had spent the best part of a weeks wages on a pair of Acupuncture trainers I'd been coveting for a while from Shelly’s. I wore them with a Coppwerheat Blundell trouser suit that was a sample they had recently given me during my placement there as part of my degree, under it I wore a mini dress I'd picked up for next to nothing in a shop in Brixton. I mention this because my trainers turned out to be agony (I didn't know I have CMT then). So my mum and I walked around the private view of the Summer Exhibition sipping Pimms from tall glasses topped with green foliage looking at the exhibition before it opened to the public. I had Pimms in one hand and my trainers in the other and viewed the whole thing in bare feet. Credit to my mother she wasn't bothered by this. I wondered what magic had bestowed this huge privilege on me. This was a big deal, surreal, out of my normal reality. I thought I'd like to have a painting in it one day.

Twenty years later I live in Bridlington, a small seaside town in Yorkshire. I have two young children. I submit a painting to the Royal Academy, it is rejected. The next year I miss the deadline, the year after I send a painting in and am asked to submit it to the final round of judging. This, to me, is an enormous success!

However...I don’t want to tell anyone in case it doesn’t get in. In case I have to admit that I have failed....

But what about the fact that when I get the email to say I’m in the final round, with instructions for delivering my art to the gallery (where, in my thirties, I spent an afternoon consumed by the technical brilliance and historical beauty of Rembrandt) I have to go to my husband’s work and show him the email just to check I haven’t made a mistake? Hoping it isn’t obvious that this news has in fact had me in tears because someone important somewhere likes my art enough to want to see it in reality? Surely this is a success is it not?

How about the thrill when I check my phone whilst having a short break from a morning’s English tutoring on my husband’s day off, I find he has messaged me a photo of an envelope addressed to me with the RA printed on it. It contains barcodes for labelling my work and surely this is a success.

If it is a success then why am I not shouting it from the rooftops? Or at least facebook? Why is it that it isn’t until some weeks later on a Sunday morning - Mother’s Day in fact - that I casually ask my mum over the phone if they are away on the 1st of May and if not then could I stay for a night because I have to be in London to deliver a (quite large) painting? Could it be fear of failure? Well, yes because who am I to think I can have my painting in the biggest international open exhibition in the world?

So if my painting is accepted then is that a success? Definitely. But what if nobody buys it. Is that a failure? Probably not. Is the slight shame (which I’m familiar with) of collecting unsold work after an exhibition better or worse if the gallery in question is the Royal Academy?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary. Success is defined:

  1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

  2. The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.

  3. A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

So if what I set out to do was to have my painting in the exhibition then, I have not achieved success. If what I set out to do was get to the final round of judging, then I have achieved success.

The same dictionary defines failure:

  1. Lack of success.

  2. An unsuccessful person or thing.

  3. The neglect or omission of expected or required action.

This is pretty ambiguous if I don’t know what the outcome is. Apart from the fact of my delivering my artwork to the gallery. This very act means that I hand over my artwork and the outcome of this is quite literally now out of my hands. I am also aware that the artwork in question is abstract and whether it is chosen or not has nothing to do with whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (In my opinion there is no such thing in art) but whether someone or some people think it will work in the space they have to fill alongside numerous other works. It does not define my worth as an artist or a person...does it?

Why then was my main reservation on the morning of the 1st of May when I turned up and joined the queue to unwrap and hand over my canvas one of ‘please don’t interview me!’ There were many signs saying ‘BBC filming in progress’ and plenty of TV cameras to prove it. I watch the programme every year about this process and I definitely did NOT want to be the person who is filmed receiving their selection email only to find they hadn’t got in. To my relief the lady in front of me was being interviewed and if she is on the programme then I will be visible in the background, hopefully not when I got out my phone to take a sneaky photo of the behind the scenes area of the RA because to be in there, with all the buzz and excitement really did feel like success.  

Look out for part two to find out how I got on…(I already know).

Sophie Walker

Mindful Creativity Practitioner, Artist and Writer., Attentive Art

I'm an Artist who studied psychology and mindfulness to help myself overcome some of life's challenges. Now I help others to do the same using creativity and psychology. I believe creativity holds the key to the enjoyment of life and I want to help everyone to feel good about yourself and your life.