Floating missiles and dancing stairlifts at RSA

Installation by Katy Hassall at the RSA New Contemporaries exhibition. Picture: Contributed
Installation by Katy Hassall at the RSA New Contemporaries exhibition. Picture: Contributed
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YOUNG artists in the New Contemporaries exhibition all satisfy one criterion – ‘interesting and exciting work’, writes Susan Mansfield

A PAIR of red velvet curtains at the top of the Royal Scottish Academy’s marble staircase make an appropriately theatrical beginning. Once inside, you’ll see floating missiles, dancing stairlifts and shamanic costumes. These staid Victorian picture galleries have never seen the like. But that’s what you get for opening your doors to some of the most talented young artists in Scotland.

RSA New Contemporaries, the exhibition which showcases work by artists selected from the previous year’s graduate shows, is now in its seventh year. The discreet cards left by the selectors beside each lucky degree show are now highly coveted, as is the chance to show a body of work in the prestigious Edinburgh institution.

At the RSA, the shift from the annual Student Exhibition to New Contemporaries marks a wider change as it evolves from a traditional Academy to a dynamic modern organisation supporting artists in the 21st century. The crowded student exhibition which aimed to include a work from every final year Fine Art student in Scotland has morphed into a curated show presenting a body of work by around 70 students – about one in seven.

RSA president Arthur Watson says: “It used to be that, as long as the work met the size restrictions and wasn’t obscene, it would be hung. But that was no preparation for life. This is far more tuned into what the students will be dealing with after graduation.”

The artists in New Contemporaries have been selected by a convener (this year Edward Summerton), who visits all five art schools and is joined at each school by a different panel of staff and academicians. They make their choices without knowing students’ marks. “We’re looking for interesting work, end of story,” says Watson. “This is nothing to do with whether they can write a good dissertation or how well they have addressed the course, it’s about what we think is exciting work.”

After being selected, students are invited to make a proposal for their contribution to the show, a further training in professional practice. Colin Greenslade, RSA director, says: “We enter into a relationship with these artists. We work with them to evolve work which will transfer into these Victorian picture galleries. We hope that engagement with us will then last for the rest of their career.”

The RSA dates back nearly two centuries and continues to occupy rooms in the purpose-built gallery on the Mound designed by William Henry Playfair in the 1820s. However, even as far back as the 1960s, the organisation was starting to look old-fashioned. John Bellany and Sandy Moffat (both of whom would later become academicians) were among those who exhibited work on the railings outside as students, a gesture towards a body they felt was trapped in a bygone age.

Art was changing and boundaries becoming fluid. The RSA seemed to belong to an age when painters painted and sculptors sculpted, rather than straying into installation, film and performance art. Now, you only need to walk through the doors to see how much times have changed. The graduates in New Contemporaries take their work freely in all directions, and this year almost everyone is thinking big: paintings of floating icebergs the size of a wall, a sculpture of ropes and weights which defines half a room.

Greenslade says the past ten years have been a decade of change for the RSA. “We’ve investigated everything we do, put a contemporary and future slant on everything. It’s not about throwing out the baby with the bath water, it’s about investigating all those elements and modernising, tweaking them and making them more relevant. New Contemporaries has come out of that.”

Despite being launched on the eve of a recession, New Contemporaries has attracted significant sponsorship. The traditional list of RSA prizes (top prize £400) was transported to a new level when the Stevenson Trust put forward a £5,000 painting prize. Last year, the pot was swollen by the £14,000 Fleming-Wyfold Bursary, and this year, the inaugural Glenfiddich Artists in Residence Award, worth £10,000, brings the total to more than £40,000.

The show has become the linchpin in the RSA’s programme for supporting emerging artists, which includes prizes, travel scholarships and residences. As traditional channels of support for young artists, through art colleges or public funding, have dwindled, the RSA has become increasingly significant. Emerging artists are not shy to speak of the organisation’s importance to them. “It was just fantastic to get selected, that in itself gave me confidence,” says Geri Loup Nolan (New Contemporaries 2010). “When you graduate, it suddenly dawns on you that you have been in an environment for four years where you have an identity as an artist. Suddenly, you’re in charge of that identity, you’re wondering: how does this work, how do I support it financially?

“New Contemporaries was a complete spur for me, it was as if somebody had just said, ‘Hey, you’re worth looking into’. It really opened my mind up to the idea of looking for opportunities for funding and support, it changed my understanding of how you might fund your practice.” Loup Nolan went on to win the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Award, a travelling scholarship which she used to spend five weeks in Japan, and was invited by the RSA to take part in Open Dialogues, the show it curated for Generation last summer.

Also in that show was Ade Adesina (New Contemporaries 2013), who was a recipient of a John Kinross Scholarship, which funds ten artists annually to spend time in Florence. “When I got towards my degree show, I was really scared that I might not be able to make art any more,” he said. “I thought I might have to get a regular job. When I got selected for New Contemporaries and the scholarship to Florence, that gave me so much hope.” Now nearly three years out of college, he has been working steadily, and recently enjoyed a residency and exhibition with Glasgow Print Studio.

When I speak to Jessica Ramm (New Contemporaries 2010), she had just dispatched her most recent work for a show at Glasgow’s Tramway. She says the RSA was crucial to her first year as an artist. “It definitely made a big difference, it was a critical bit of encouragement, to know that people are interested in what you’re doing and to be given an audience. Students do appreciate it, it’s a bit of confidence when you don’t quite know how you’re going to patch life together financially.

“It’s an awkward time when you graduate, you leave all the support structures you have. It’s a challenge to make a new body of work for a show like New Contemporaries, but that’s what working as an artist is like, you’re always stretching to make the next opportunity, pushing yourself, pushing your work.”

For Greenslade, the key is engagement. “What we do is we engage with artists, we fund them, we show them. We’re excited about what’s going on in Scotland, we invite artists into Scotland to engage with Scottish artists.” Watson puts it more simply: “It’s an artist collective, it’s just a very old one.”

RSA New Contemporaries is on until 8 April (www.royalscottishacademy.org)

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