Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: NEAC Annual Exhibition 2013

I've been trying to work out how to word this review of the 2013 Annual Exhibition of the New English Art Club 2013.  It might more accurately be described as a post mortem.

I've come to the conclusion that it's best just to highlight a salutary tale which is relevant to all art societies.  They all have their ups and downs - and this is a tale of a big dip.

Cover of the catalogue for the New English Art Club's Annual Exhibition 2013
painting by Michael Whittlesea
This year I've been preoccupied with the book I've been commissioned to write and hence visited the Annual Exhibition of the New England Art Club on the last day rather than nearer the beginning.

Normally I'm walking into an exhibition which already has lots of red dots.

This year as I started to go round, I began to realise that something very odd had happened.

I started in the Threadneedle Space. It's a space in which more contemporary styles do particularly well but is hard on work which is not strong. I wasn't particularly enamoured with what I saw (although it included some very good paintings) - but that happens in many exhibitions. You come across a room where the work has been selected and hung by somebody who has a very different eye for what he or she likes compared to you. That's OK - it's just a different way of looking at art. I don't expect everybody to like what I like either!

Threadneedle Space - included some very dark paintings and two prizewinners
BUT no work sold

I think very dark artwork has to be hung with a lot of space around it
otherwise it has a tendency to 'kill' other work.
(compare this to the same view in the 2012 Annual Exhibition
- see Review: New English Art Club Annual Exhibition 2012 )
I kept looking and then started up the stairs - and that's when it struck me. I went back down the stairs and slowly went round the room.

There wasn't a single red dot.

Absolutely no sales - on the very last day of the exhibition.

So, that's when I pulled out my pen and started to tour the exhibition slowly, looking for all the sales to see if I could see a pattern.

View of the West Gallery
NEAC 2013 - West Gallery, South Wall
By the time I got to the end I had my answer.  Below are the factors I identified.

  • This was an exhibition which, to me, didn't look like a NEAC exhibition. That's said from the perspective of this being an exhibition that I really look forward to seeing every year. It's also an exhibition by an art society which is highly rated and that a lot of my artist friends aspire to get into.  It certainly included quite a lot of work I liked however it also seemed to include many more dark paintings compared to previous years.  It lacked big "punctuation" pieces which were colourful and packed a punch - what I call the "come and look at me" paintings - or at least the hang didn't show them off if they were there. I looked back at last year and see I noted something quite similar.  The feel of the exhibition was quite different to previous years (see for example my review of New English Art Club Annual exhibition 2010). This suggested to me something had changed in the selection process.
    • So - if something had changed on the selection front - what was it?
A bay which looked much more like the NEAC exhibitions of old
  • a LOT less sales than usual! This was really very odd indeed.  This is an exhibition which sells consistently well year on year. In fact so far as I'm aware this is normally one of the best selling exhibitions held in the gallery. Based on the quantity of red dots, if I'd walked in a couple of days after the PV I'd be thinking something had gone wrong and sales were slow. However, I was walking round in the final hours of a 10 day exhibition.  Something was definitely very, very wrong. 398 paintings, prints and drawings were hung. I counted 44 sales although it's possible I may have missed some.  That represents 11% of the exhibition sold.  
    • So - was it just that the selection looked different this year?  
    • Could it be the economy? (That might be an easy excuse but is not a factor in my book given I review all the other exhibitions in this gallery)
    • Had the Affordable Art fair over at Battersea depleted art collectors' funds?
    • Or was there some other factor? Did they have bad weather on the PV day maybe?
Judith Gardner had a good exhibition - 4 out of 5 paintings sold.
She sold four small works all priced under £1,000 and one unsold large painting
She's also a member of The Small Paintings Group
- I've been a fan of Judith's work for a long time.
  • virtually all the sales were small works selling for less than a £1,000.  It was very clear that £1,000 was a significant threshold.  It was as if somebody had diverted all the art collectors with funds somewhere else! That to me meant that those art collectors with money had, for whatever reason, not turned up this year - or didn't like what they saw or didn't like the prices listed for larger pieces. If I sat down and counted the value of the work hung and then worked out the exhibition value, the percentage of sales to exhibition value would be a lot lower than the 11% calculated for the number of works sold.  Those artists who did well with respect to two or more sales of small works are:
Michael Whittlesea always manages to produce paintings which appeal to buyers
This year he sold three of his four small works
[Note: I worked for many years in a variety of roles involving business and performance analysis from management consultant for one of the "big" firms to senior manager within large organisations. My roles invariably had a focus on performance analysis and I was something of a specialist at one stage in performance indicators.  For me, the three primary business performance indicators for any art society exhibition are (1) number of works sold expressed as a percentage; (2) value of works sold expressed as a percentage of the value of works on view and (3) the average price of works sold.  Any artist member of an art society should expect that a report to members on the performance of an exhibition should include these three performance indicators.  A popular exhibition with lots of sales means more artists get to share the benefits of art collectors who are buying!  I'd also want to know who were the top selling artists.]
  • I also noticed that a lot of works by member artists were priced rather high.  In fact I'd go so far to say that in an era of very low inflation, the increases in the prices of paintings over the last five years or so has been absolutely huge.  
    • There obviously had to be a reason why large paintings were not selling - could this be it? Price inflation on paintings was out of kilter with real inflation
    • Are artists selling less and hence trying to maintain income by pricing higher?
    • Are artists pricing higher to attract the type of art collector who can afford this sort of price?  It's certainly a strategy which has worked for some in the recent past - but certainly not all. It's also a strategy which requires targeted marketing to those art collectors with the funds to pay the prices.  They don't just turn up on the off chance!

Six artworks by Diana Armfield RA RWS NEAC PS
No sales
  • I spotted three NEAC members of the Royal Academy of Arts with no sales at all. Two of them - Ken Howard OBE PPNEAC RA RBA ROI and Diana Armfield RA RWS NEAC RWA Hon PS - have consistently sold well in the past. My jaw literally dropped when I saw Diana Armfield had no sales. I have been following her work for many years in exhibitions by different societies and have NEVER been to an exhibition which included work by Diana Armfield and seen a group of her works on the last day with no red dots. Her normal track record is 30-100% of works sold
  • The number of works by non-members selected from the open entry was very low.  I have asked before and I will ask again - can an exhibition really be considered an open exhibition when a tiny percentage of works are selected from the open entry? Also, in other exhibitions I've seen at the Mall Galleries some of the most interesting and appealing work came from non members! (see Review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters - Annual Exhibition 2013)
  • I wasn't wowed by the hang. I couldn't get my head round the hang until I realised that those hanging the exhibition had been faced with the challenge of having to work out where to place several very large sombre, very dark or very low key paintings. What was odd was they seemed to put these centre stage and give them prominence. By way of contrast, those paintings which were lighter, high key painting - particularly those which have demonstrated in the past the ability to lift and lighten a wall (eg paintings by Ruth Stage) - were squeezed into a corner where their impact was compressed rather than expanded!
    • So - was it the selection or was it the hang - or maybe a bit of both?
Wonderful artwork (yet again) in egg tempera by Ruth Stage NEAC
The work bottom left should have been occupying the centre of a large wall - it won The David Messum Prize

I met up with some of the members before I left and confirmed it wasn't my imagination that there were many fewer sales this year.

I also learned that:
  • newly elected members were responsible for the pre-screening stage of the open entry. While I fully understand the need to induct new members into the screening and selection process, surely this also needs to be also informed by the involvement of more senior members? This could be a more significant factor BUT for the fact that this exhibition now includes so few works from artists submitting via the open entry. 
  • members hang the exhibition - but are they experienced members who are good at hanging exhibitions?  It takes a lot of skill to hang an exhibition effectively.  Some parts worked better than other parts.
  • this year NEAC cancelled their Annual Dinner for friends and collectors - usually held before the exhibition opened, in the Galleries.  In the past I was told that it has very often generated a lot of sales - particularly of larger works. It also meant that the exhibition got off to a good start because it opened to the public with red dots already in place.  It creates the right psychological context for creating a disposition to buy.  This year that was missing.
Overall, I concluded that it was very unlikely to be one single factor. It was much more likely that all the factors identified by me plus those identified by members probably conspired to produce a poor result in terms of sales.

What's missing for me

The New English Art Club started life as the English equivalent of the Impressionists.  This was the group that broke away from the Royal Academy.  It has for the most part maintained its tradition as being a group which is not aiming to be in the same place as the RA or its summer show.

However the RA used to have a tradition of filling the Small Wesson Room at the Summer Exhibition with small paintings by very good painters. It was a room which was not like the rest of the exhibition and always used to be jam packed with visitors and full of red dots.  Latterly, the RA have abandoned this tradition. This year selectors chose to include works which may have produced a conceptual statement but left some of us wondering whether it was a joke to mix up paintings by accomplished painters with those of rank amateurs.  For me it emphasised that the tradition of the Small Wesson Room is no more.

Today the focus of the New English Art Club is supposed to be on contemporary figurative painting - except it I don't think it is. It's missing something.

For me the exhibition of the New English Art Club must continue to be the exhibition that people aspire to be in.  It should be:
  • the exhibition that takes over and continues the tradition of the Small Wesson Room by focusing on the small paintings much loved by those who have a passion for collecting figurative art by accomplished artists and want to buy small paintings at affordable prices.   The far rooms of the North Gallery should be packed with paintings with red dots by those accomplished at packing a lot of quality into a small painting.
  • an exhibition that finds and highlights the emerging artists with something new to say in the field of figurative art.  This shouldn't be left to the new competitions such as the Threadneedle.
  • an exhibition that has a wonderful mix of the old and the new - in terms of painters and printmakers and draughtsman who have and are making their mark on the art world - and those who will do in future
  • an exhibition with a significant proportion of work coming from the juried open entry. This should be the exhibition where the experienced should be applying themselves to finding the future.
I was impressed by the drawings of Adele Henderson in the North Gallery who last year was awarded the New English Art Club drawing school scholarship. Here to me was an example of an artist who we should see a lot more of in the future.

Drawings in pencil and charcoal by Adele Henderson
- part of the exhibition of work by the New English Drawing School founded by Jason Bowyer.


There were a number of prizewinners - this one caught my eye before I realised it was a prizewinner. It shouted 'prizewinner' from its wall in the Threadneedle Space.

Winner of the Doreen Macintosh Prize
Drawing Class by Michael Kirkpride NEAC

However, I find it very disappointing that despite the 2013 exhibition having closed that the NEAC website still lists and displays the prizewinners from the 2012 exhibition!  One of my perennial comments in recent years has been that Art Societies must get better at marketing online as well as off!

Bottom line - this has not been a successful exhibition for many of the participating artists or the society or the Mall Galleries.

Some may say that a review should focus on the art.  For me the focus on the art should happen when I focus on the artist.  This is my review of 'the business end' of an exhibition - and what went wrong.

Let us never forget that practising artists need exhibitions to be successful. Art Societies must keep on top of making sure they deliver the benefits of association to their members. One of the excellent ways of doing this is through the exhibition as some other art societies (eg SWLA) demonstrate consistently year on year.

I wouldn't take the time with this review that I have if I didn't think a lot of the New English Art Club whose work has delighted me in the past.

I suggest that the NEAC Executive Committee think very carefully about how it organises (in terms of who does what) and markets its exhibition - and member artists - for the 2014 exhibition.

In the past I've very much regarded them as a leading art society within the UK.  It feels to me as if they stumbled and lost their way this year. I'm now thinking that they have a lot of ground to make up in the next year.


  1. Thanks for a brilliant report and insightful evaluation Katherine. I am fairly new to your blog and work, my introduction coming via Sophie Ploeg.

    As a painter for many years, I always enjoy open exhibition for the variety, colour and challenge of the works - as you say, this seems to be missing here. I have also noted a reduction in "social" events attached to exhibitions of late. Building a tribe or community be it online or in real life is crucial and yes creating the climate to buy should never be underestimated! thanks Jen

  2. Insightful review. Thank you for the tour, as always, and the comparison to previous years' imagery. I suspect that this sort of break-down & analysis of a big exhibit is uncommon among artists. Swinging a paintbrush and crunching numbers are such different skill sets, but hats off to you for the interest (& ability) to do both.

  3. I think the Threadneedle Space does a disservice to those artists who have the misfortune to be exhibited in there, rather than in the Main gallery or even the North gallery. It's gloomy, partly down to the dark floor surface and top of the walls and ceiling and partly down to the lighting which I believe uses a different type of bulb and seems harsh compared to the other galleries.

  4. Really Great article. I hope they listen.

    On a side note - the website linked to Adele henderson's name is a different artist.
    She's an american with the same name.


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