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The WD Interview – Mick Rooney, Painter & Curator, Royal Academy of Arts

July 1st, 2009 · No Comments · Arts & Culture, The WD Interview

Mick Rooney is a British painter who lives and works in London. He was elected Royal Academician in 1991. His painting, Shangri-La was a recent Royal Academy Object of the Month.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is held every June, July and August in Piccadilly in Central London. It is an open exhibition and has been held without interruption since 1769. All exhibits are for sale.

In his interview with Wallflower Dispatches, Rooney offers insight into the way in which one of Britain’s most popular art venues is created.

How are the paintings chosen for the Summer Exhibition and at which point do you get involved – in other words: at what point does your curator’s role start?

I am called upon to serve on the Summer Exhibition Committee every seven years or so. Then I am part of it for two consecutive years.

The President of the Royal Academy is there, plus about twelve members who choose three coordinators – with luck and after discussions we agree on the year’s strategy.

In my case, I agree to hang the Small Weston Room (as in 2008) and also the Lecture Room – a huge space. As my own work concerns itself with the figurative, the narrative and the poetic, I can look after those Academicians and artists whose work fits that kind of vision.

Do you see yourself more as a painter or a curator in this process?

Of the many rooms that need organising some Academicians feel the need, quite rightly, to curate their rooms. The work, often abstract in approach, or spectacular pieces sent in by our honorary members such as Frank Stella or Anselm Kiefer in a minimal very calm way.

Others, like myself must accommodate a great many works (in the end just enough works of course!) to give very good artists a chance to be seen.

What are your criteria for choosing the paintings, which are eventually included?

This year we decided early on to make a wall of black and white graphics. It is a wall full of small etchings and work achieved in every other graphic media. The initial choosing of works takes three working days. About 9,000 works pass before our eyes. The works that hold out attention for some moments pass through eventually into the galleries.

(The Small Weston Room 2009 – to view individual paintings, click to enlarge and zoom in)

In case for the works for the Small Weston Room I need to find/choose many works. My colleagues know this and help in the process by letting me just nod my head. 

It seems that the Small Weston Room holds between 280/300 works. It is not set in stone and now and again can change its focus.

It happens that smaller works are often more successful beautiful or jewel like than some larger works. I am of course not choosing artists for how small they work. Serious well-known artists submit small paintings. But here is a chance to show work the many lesser known artists.

The room becomes a giant jigsaw puzzle. First, at eye level, I have to hang the paintings of the members of the Academy whose work will grace the walls. Then with my team of four very intelligent helpers (one, by the way, a young French lawyer called Faton) we lay out the works on the floor and shuffle them around. Works at the top of the wall have to be strong and “read”.

Sometimes a good work waits to be hung. Sometimes a correct space awaits a fortunate work. Sometimes a good work does not make it in the end. Charles Darwin looks on – even in the Small Weston Room.

What would be your advise for those who are thinking about submitting something for next year’s Summer Exhibition in terms of the peculiarity of the space of the Small Weston Room/style and content of painting?

To find a little space in the Small Weston Room just paint an interesting, beautiful, arresting image and hope for the best.

The Royal Academicians may personally prefer a certain direction in their art, but they are not prejudiced against any good work. A still life, a beach hut, two men fighting, toy trains, a feather, an abstract paint texture, a framed embroidery – it’s all there. Just take a chance to enter. The odds though of success seem to be about an eight to one chance of acceptance.

In recent years, the Royal Academy seems to have felt the need to tap into a more commercial approach to the Summer Exhibition (most famous example Tracey Emin) – how do you feel about that?

The Royal Academy has always worked hand in hand with the famous artist. The Summer Exhibition is an annual survey of work that comes to town.

The public may or may not seriously consider the solid silver anatomical work by Damien Hirst, the great glass boxes by Anselm Kiefer or, last year, wonder what Tracey Emin was about with the room she curated.

They ought to ignore it all and stoically and purposefully march to the Small Weston Room to get their own piece of the action. Wealth and power may have place on the summer show, but generally in spite of the press, it is the public that rate.

How do you explain the popularity of the Summer Exhibition?

The annual Summer Exhibition (once there was also a Winter Exhibition) has been a national salon since the late 18th Century both to showcase the works of the Academicians and, from sales, to provide funds for the Royal Academy School. Fundraising is the central role of the Academy through its exhibition programme.

The Summer Exhibition is an immovable feast – it comes as part of the British calendar like Christmas or the Chelsea Flower Show, the Epsom Derby, Wimbledon Tennis, Royal Ascot or the Queen’s official birthday. It is an essential emotional brick in the structure of British life.

Sometimes the show is greater with excitement, sometimes with less excitement. Nevertheless it remains a microcosm of the Zeitgeist.

Which exhibits to you particularly recommend this year?

Naturally, modesty forbids recommending any of my own work. In fact, the breadth of the exhibition in terms of content makes it almost impossible to point to any particular work. I do admire many of the vigorous artists now well over eighty in terms of age. There is also a generation of young artists who wish to continue in the great tradition of painting.

Whoever and whatever – it is no easy matter to work as an artist. Very few are famous. They do it anyway and they find admirers and friends in the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs until 16th August 2009 at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London.


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