Thursday, July 13, 2017

15th National Students' Art Exhibition - Review

Yesterday I visited the 15th National Students' Art Exhibition. It opened yesterday at the Mall Galleries and continues until 3pm on Saturday 15th July - so quite a short exhibition.

This is a review of what I found - plus some suggestions (at the end) for how next year's exhibition might be made even better, more accessible and more rewarding for school students nationally.

The National Students' Art Exhibition

The exhibition is the only national competition for the display of artwork by secondary school students across the UK.  Artists range in age from 11 to 18 years old and come from schools, colleges and academies.

Students' Artwork in the Threadneedle Space
It has a very basic website and is held under the patronage of the Royal Society of British Artists.
we welcome work from Years 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 & 13, all types of media including sculpture and pure photography
I wasn't entirely sure what I expected to see. However seeing an exhibition fill all the spaces in the Mall Galleries with conviction got me thinking about

  • what are its main characteristics and 
  • the main differences between this exhibition and the others that I see in these spaces.

This post provides images of the exhibition - and some conclusions about my conclusions as to what were the main similarities and big differences. (You can see more gallery views of the exhibition in an album on its Facebook Page)

Overall, I found the exhibition impressive given the age of the students - and one which might give some other exhibitors some pause for thought in terms of how to get noticed!

Given the exhibits are all by children and young people, the links are to their schools rather than individuals.

This exhibition is......

  • more colourful 
  • more emotional 
  • more energetic and vibrant (some of the paintings were bouncing off the walls)
View of the Main Gallery
Main Gallery exhibits
It includes:
  • artwork exhibiting imaginative approaches to how to treat a subject and how to create artwork. It made me think that it's a great exhibition for demonstrating how staid and safe some artists / exhibitions have become.
Through the Trees by Reece Beech (Astor College)
Mixed media lightbox

A very unusual 3D work using perspex, slides and a lightbox.
At Home with dad by Annabelle Trew (Highworth Grammar School)

I loved the perspective of this one - suggesting keeping an eye on Dad!
  • unabashed political statements - providing a commentary of the state of the world today (I wish I saw more of these in the exhibitions typically seen in these galleries) 
(top) The Eyes of America by Paris Jefferey (The Freeston Academy)
Biro on wood
(Bottom) African Sweatshop by Laurel Fish (Dover Grammar School for Girls)

Two very striking works exhibited on the 'centre' end of one of the dividers.
The presidents before Trump have no eyes.
  • some excellent draughtsmanship
The monochrome wall in the North Galleries
Various subjects got the monochrome treatment - including a lot of portraits
School Library by Annabelle Trew (Highworth Grammar School)
Pen and ink

A drawing of a very normal school library made special by the quality of the drawing in pen and ink
Untitled by Olivia Tarr (Wallington High School for Girls)

I found the composition of this one (a self-portrait) very interesting
- she's managed the tonal control so the figure does not float off and become recessive
  • lots of large bold works - it's great to see art teachers helping students to work in larger formats
  • some very good portraits - there are lots and lots of portraits - much more so than I normally see in art society exhibitions. However having reviewed the BP Portrait Award Exhibition recently I was struck by how many of the artists show great promise for the future
  • very few landscapes - meaning lots of scope for somebody to make an impact with a landscape
  • and a few sophisticated painters - in terms of quality of content, composition and design, technique and finish, 
Portraits in the Threadneedle Space
some very striking portraits in terms of design or perspective
Portraits in the North Gallery
they're all good efforts - but some succeed better than others 
Upcycled me by four students from Hayes School
print on card

Loved these card portraits - they felt very real - but a bit difficult to see against the backlighting
Transatlantic Self-Portrait by Galvin Salvador-Regulado (St Thomas More High School)

This one felt like an effort to resolve identity differences and personas.
I thought it was wasted in terms of where it was hung

Natural beauty by Emma Todd (St Clement Danes School)

I loved the composition on this one with the tension between the figures
in the foreground and background and the gestures from behind.
I suspect it's something to do with different concepts of what it takes

to look good as a girl in her teens.
Generations in Light by Maisie Savage (St Clement Dane's School)

This very striking portrait is bold in its design and confident in its use of paint
Self by Theo Grace (Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School)
oil on cardboard

Theo is going for impact - and succeeding!
In Mourning by Emily Wood (The Freeston School)

I love this one - a profound concept in a simple, small, economical format which is exquisitely rendered in pen and ink
It is also:
  • more raw
  • less refined in terms of techniques and finish
  • not as sophisticated as other exhibitions
Some exhibitors demonstrate
  • an obsession with selfies and "the self" 
  • some predictable and cliche efforts - but much less than I anticipated
In fact any weaknesses are, for the most part, the type associated with many teenagers - and are the sort of attributes which most grow out of as they become more experienced and skilled in their art-making.

I concluded that the majority of students are taught by art teachers who get students to think for themselves and encourage them to be individual and original.

Next year's exhibition - participation and communication

The dates of next year's exhibition are advertised in the back of the catalogue - the dates are 11th - 14th July 2018. Would that all national art societies could manage to do the same!

HOWEVER, schools and students are not so well informed about process.  The process followed (as indicated on the website - but NOT included in the catalogue) is:
  • information to schools (April)
  • 'intent to submit' for to be returned (May)
  • submission / selection - end of June
The submission deadline for next year is 27th June 2018.

If I had one criticism it is that this exhibition is in no way representative of all schools across the country. There are over 4,000 maintained schools in the UK however

  • schools participating in this exhibition are but a tiny percentage of the whole 
  • rather more grammar and selective schools participate pro rata to percentages nationally and 
  • there seems a distinct bias towards 
    • schools in and around the home counties
    • "white anglo-saxon" students - in terms of portraits in the exhibition and names of participants in the catalogue . This makes it completely unrepresentative of e.g. London and the major metropolitan areas

The preface to the catalogue indicates that the exhibition includes artwork from special schools and hence is inclusive. I'd suggest a review of what "inclusive" should mean within the context of the promotion of opportunity, inclusivity and diversity in the widest sense within education in the UK - particularly in relation to communication and organisation.

I listened to some of the students being interviewed for a video yesterday. It was very striking how very much they valued art as a school subject and how much being in the exhibition meant to them - which is a great tribute to the exhibition. It seems to me that:

  • it would be a very great pity not to make that experience more accessible to a wider group of students nationally. 
  • it is essential to to understand better what is stopping other students and schools from participating in the exhibition.

I'd suggest the RBA as sponsors and the organisers focus more on
  • developing a much more informative website and Facebook Page (the current one has just 18 likes!)
  • making sure ALL secondary schools nationally are 
    • more aware of the Call for Entries and 
    • have better access to the information about the exhibition MUCH EARLIER in the school year (ideally by the start of the school year)
  • promoting access for all students - by making sure information is available to all schools - both state and independent operating under all regimes for the delivery of education. 
  • use the catalogue to provide sufficient information for any student or school attending the exhibition to know what they have to do to submit work for next year's exhibition.
For example, from a practical perspective, the current timetable makes no allowance for exam timetables or the need for the schools, Heads of Art and/or potential participants to be given adequate notice if students are to be given adequate time to prepare artwork without jeopardising their studies. Whereas those schools which have been participating for years won't need a reminder to get their students interested at a much earlier stage.....

It would be great to see a report in next year's catalogue that details how many students from schools NEW to the exhibition have had artwork selected for the exhibition.


  1. From Kate Jewell

    I totally agree with your comment about the clash with the exams timetables. Art GCSE and A Levels operate differently from non-totally practical subjects with the exam period and school marking having to be completed by the end of May. This is followed by an exam board visiting moderation period throughout June. There is nothing to stop students submitting their final exam pieces to this exhibition but it would be much better if the closing date for submissions and the exhibition was shifted at least two weeks later. Of course you do have to remember when schools break up for summer, state schools mid July, independent schools earlier.

    I am an A Level Moderator for the full range of A&D subjects and visit, on average, eight schools/academies/colleges per year. Working in the East Midlands I have seen some stunning work and the standard gets better year on year. However, I can only remember one school, in ten years of visits, mentioning they were submitting work to this exhibition.

  2. Very many thanks Kate.

    It's great to have endorsement from somebody such as yourself - I thought I was right, but it's always nice to have an opinion validated!



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