Art / royal west of england academy

Life on the RWA Annual Open’s selection panel

By steve wright, Wednesday Oct 9, 2019

The RWA’s renowned Annual Open Exhibition is currently in situ for its 167th year, with a stunning variety of work from emerging and established artists.

This dynamic and varied exhibition invites painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, installation and mixed media submissions and is a showcase of some of the most exciting artists from across the country and beyond.

A selection panel assesses every single entry: this year, the panel sifted through some 3,000 submitted artworks, whittling them down to the 657 pieces that made the final exhibition.

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We spoke to one member of this year’s panel, RWA Academician Leslie Glenn Damhus, about the selection process.

The selection panel is made up of the Academy’s President, Academicians, and external selectors, which can include curators, art critics, historians, collectors, writers, museums or gallery directors and established artists.

The selection process has two parts. The first round is a digital selection. The internal members first assess every entry online – approximately 3,000 entries (this process takes several days) – before inviting approximately 45% of these entries through to the next stage. The selected works are then handed into the RWA for final selection.This takes place in front of nine selectors.

A selection of works from this year’s Annual Open at the Royal West of England Academy. All pics: Lisa Whiting

Our wonderful volunteers carry each work past the panel and selection is done by a show of hands. For a work to be selected it requires five out of nine votes. If requested we can ask our Art Carriers to allow the panel a closer look or a confirmation of the medium and title of the work. But no other information is made available, to ensure the anonymity of the selection process.

The RWA’s director Alison Bevan keeps everything and everyone in check so the procedure stays on track and on time. This is a crucial job, as to get through everything in a day we need to vote on around three works per minute – so there is not much time for further discussion on individual works.

On occasion, when a work has received four votes and those that voted in favour for that work feel strongly about the piece, we would take another look and discuss the work and vote again. Sometimes the vote changes, sometimes not. But the panel’s main objective is to make contemporary and diverse choices without adversely affecting the integrity of the Academy.

Works with immediate impact can play a factor. I look for how well the work is executed or whether it’s a good example of its genre, or if it has a certain something special about it. By this I mean: does it create an emotional response and/or connectivity? Did the artist take risks with the work or maybe there is a mystery about the piece? The whole process relies on our individual instinctive and intuitive responses to the work.

The panel is diverse, so we get a fair representation of tastes and we all have to keep an open mind. And then, even though we each have our own personal tastes, we might as a group take a decision on what type of work may be under-represented, because the aim of the Annual Open Exhibition is to showcase a diverse and exciting selection of contemporary art from amateur artists to professionals, encompassing all ages and mediums.

There are certain things I find problematic, such as framing choices, large signatures on the front of works, unprofessional photographs of the pieces for the digital first stage, and appropriateness of the scale of work from the original digital image. It can be quite a surprise when you actually see the work in front of you on final selection day.

This year we received more large-scale works than last year. This can make the job of the placement team more difficult as they have the horrible task of deciding what gets hung and what is selected but not hung. However, on the RWA’s website you can see the full collection of all works selected and all works are available for sale online as well as in person.

We continue to encourage and display more film, photography and architecture alongside more traditional painting, drawing, sculpture and textile works. While many of the submissions come from Bristol and the southwest, the rest of the country and worldwide are also represented. It’s been an honour and privilege to be on this year’s selection and placement teams.

The RWA Annual Open takes an amazing team effort. We’re grateful to all involved and most importantly a big thank you to all the artists that applied and to everyone supporting the RWA, Bristol’s oldest art gallery.

The 167 Annual Open continues at the Royal West of Englasnd Academy until Dec 1. For more info, visit

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