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London's Royal Academy Of Arts Celebrates 250 Years Of Showcasing Contemporary Works


Summertime in London means Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Aspiring artists get to see their work displayed and offered for sale in the same halls with some of Britain's most famous names. The academy is celebrating 250 years of showcasing contemporary works. NPR's Debbie Elliott went to take a look.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In its first week, the Summer Exhibition has the Royal Academy abuzz. The experience begins in a center room filled with a huge textile sculpture hanging from above, colorfully stitched wings stretching nearly to the walls.

EDITH DEVANEY: So you've got all of those kind of texture of fabric and embroidery and crochet and pompoms and tassels.

ELLIOTT: Curator Edith Devaney is in charge of the Summer Exhibition and acts as our tour guide. She's describing a piece by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, which sets the tone for the whimsical experience to come.

DEVANEY: We can wander into the biggest of the galleries, which is the yellow gallery, which Grayson hung.

ELLIOTT: Grayson is the British potter Grayson Perry, who sometimes appears as his alter ego, Claire. He curated this show called "Art Made Now." Bright yellow paint is on the walls, and they're covered floor to ceiling by a patchwork of paintings.

DEVANEY: There's loads of kind of elements of conflict and disturbance going on here.

ELLIOTT: We're standing at the far wall where the most political of the collection is displayed. There's an image of President Trump wearing Miss Mexico's sash as she's sprawled atop the presidential desk, a painting of Kim Jong Un staring at a urinal along with some Brexit commentary.

DEVANEY: We've also got the piece by Banksy, which is "Vote To Leave" poster where they've put a love-heart balloon over the E and the A of leave, so it's become "Vote To Love."

ELLIOTT: In another room, there's a new work by David Hockney, a wall-sized mirror image of his studio. There's something for most art tastes here - sculpture, pottery, prints, architecture and multimedia pieces, like this talking grocery cart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Step inside and have a look around, please. Everything must go.

ELLIOTT: In all, there are more than 1,300 pieces, most coming from artists who sent in their submissions to have a shot at being displayed alongside members of the Royal Academy of Art. It's such an honor that Winston Churchill and Prince Charles famously submitted works under fake names in hopes of being included in the Summer Exhibition.

Artist and Royal Academy member Emma Stibbon is on the committee that sorted through more than 20,000 public submissions, the most in 250 years of the summer show. Speaking via Skype, she remembers how it felt early in her career when one of her prints was accepted in the early 1990s.

EMMA STIBBON: Having your work hung at the RA and amongst your kind of peers made me feel it validated it somehow. You know, it really - I felt much more confident.

ELLIOTT: More importantly, she says, the print sold. The Royal Academy of Art was founded by King George III in 1768 at the urging of a group of British artists who wanted a place to exhibit contemporary work. The Academy remains an independent institution run by and for artists. Charles Franklin says he travels from his home in southeast England every year to see this show.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: It's a very difficult exhibition 'cause it's full of good stuff and not-such-good stuff. And I think the guy in charge, Grayson Perry, has kind of embraced that and accepted it's mad and turned the whole thing into an extraordinary installation.

ELLIOTT: The 250th anniversary Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs through August. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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