In a little under seven weeks, the Royal College of Art summer degree shows open to the public. In our role as media partners we’ll be counting down to the much-anticipated exhibitions with a series of articles profiling the people involved and the stories which are emerging from this hotbed of cutting-edge creativity.
We decided to start – as seems right– at the very top. Dr Paul Thompson has been rector of the RCA since 2009, and explained that the countdown to the degree shows is always a hectic time.
“It is very stressful for the students because this is the culmination of two years’ very hard study and each year the bar gets raised higher. Expectations increase and people’s own ambitions to do the very best increase so it is highly pressurised but also there’s tremendous excitement and fun.”
Part of the pressure comes from the footsteps in which this year’s crop of graduates are treading. With alumni ranging from Tracey Emin and Henry Moore to James Dyson and Thomas Heatherwick, the pedigree is inescapable.
“They do stand on the shoulder of giants,” Dr Thompson says. “People are aware of what went before. I think that’s very human but I don’t think it’s very relevant. The most important thing for them to do is focus on their work. It’s a bit like running a race and the last thing you should be doing is turning your head backwards. Students should just be concentrating on themselves – on their own work and on making sure that Show 2014 is the best it can possibly be.”
Although one institution, the RCA schools are divided between its Battersea and Kensington campuses. The atmosphere at each is slightly different. “In Battersea you’ve got fine artists working on very singular projects and they’re more concerned with the hang of the overall show. They want it to be as well-curated as possible and make sure there is a coherence, that their work gets the right space in which to breathe and have its own presence.
“In the design and architecture programmes it’s slightly different. There is more freneticism around the workshops because they’re quickly getting models finished or sending things out to the fabricators. There’s definitely a different tone and a slightly different set of emphases between the two campuses.”
While the students sweat, the staff have seen it all before. But that doesn’t mean their immune to the excitement. “Many of the staff have been through the process so while there’s definitely a sense of anticipation the stress is different. There is a familiarity to it; we know what to expect and we know where tensions rise. It’s part of our academic cycle but everyone has that same sense of adrenalin when you see the fist runway show for fashion or the first models being unveiled in the innovation design engineering programme.”
The staff understand how important these shows are, for the students and for the institution as a whole. For the former, there’s always the hope of a job offer or being taken on by a gallery (“This could be the moment you pay back all your student debt”!), and it’s also a time to show their friends and family what they have been up to for two years.
For the RCA, it’s “the biggest week in the calendar.”
“It’s an extremely important moment for us. It’s when our credentials are burnished; people look at the work and the quality of thinking. It is important for us to toot our own horn. And because it’s such an important moment in the academic calendar we do get a lot of alumni coming back who want to see what their successors have been doing.”
But there’s a lot to take in for even the most dedicated visitor to the summer shows. Dr Thompson says there is only one way to attack it: “Allow plenty of time! There’s such a plethora of unbelievably original thinking and incredible creativity. It’s not something you can just walk through once or try and capture at one of the opening parties. It’s like reading a long book; you have got to slowly work your way through the chapters absorbing it all and relishing it all.
“If you can chat to the students that is incredibly rewarding and you get that fourth dimension; you suddenly understand even more about it as they are all incredibly good at explaining their work.”
And come the end of June when the shows are taken down and the college embarks on its summer break, what does the rector hope to have achieved? “The main things is people’s own sense of personal success. We want people leaving the RCA thinking, ‘That was the most transformative experience in my life and it’s really changed my practice as an artist or a designer’.”
It’s quite the ambition, and Dr Thompson and his team are just weeks away from finding out how the class of 2014 measure up.
It’s Nice That is proud to be media partner for Show RCA 2014, which runs until 29 June at the Royal College of Art’s Battersea and Kensington campuses. For more information visit the dedicated website.