The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is a national institution, as English as strawberries and cream, and rain at a picnic. It signals the start of the summer season, and is the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show, offering both professional and amateur artists an opportunity to showcase their work in all media to the broadest possible audience.

Now in its 244th edition, the Summer Exhibition continues in the spirit in which it was originally conceived by the Academy’s founding fathers, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir William Chambers, who strove to achieve a professional standing for art and architecture. Their declared aim was to provide a platform, through a venue that was open to the public, “to promote the arts of design” and to “mount an annual exhibition open to all artists of distinguished merit” to finance the training of young artists in the RA schools, while also encouraging debate, understanding, creation and enjoyment through education.

The show always attracts a wide range of visitors, many of whom are not seasoned gallery-goers, but, coming hot on the heels of the Royal Academy’s sell-out and hugely popular David Hockney exhibition, this year’s Summer Exhibition is likely to be even more popular than ever.

Like many national institutions, the Summer Exhibition divides opinion. Some people are, somewhat snobbishly perhaps, critical of the inclusion of works by ‘Sunday painters’ alongside those by mainstream and established professional artists. But for many, the democracy of the Summer Exhibition is its chief attraction, and the wide range and variety of art on display is a testament to flourishing creativity amongst artists of all types and abilities. In recent years, the decision to hang the works slightly differently has given a less crowded feel to the displays, and the stark white walls of Burlington House have been replaced with soft muted greys and earth hues which provide a more sympathetic backdrop.

Every year, the Summer Exhibition is curated by a group of artists who are charged with the responsibility of hanging a single room. This year’s list includes Royal Academicians Peter Freeth, Tess Jaray, Chris Orr, Barbara Rae, and Christopher Le Brun (President of the Royal Academy). The rooms are generally arranged according to a specific theme: Room IV is devoted to work by Scottish and Irish artists, while Room V focuses on landscape. And this year, the Small Weston Room, usually the crowded home of very small works, hosts a single video installation by Jayne Parker. Other artists exhibiting this year include Tracey Emin, Ken Howard, Michael Craig-Martin, Michael Landy and Anselm Kiefer (Royal Academicians can submit six pieces of their own work).

The opening room, the Wohl Central Hall, is a homage to Matisse in its red walls (reminiscent of Matisse’s The Red Studio), and colourful displays, including two iconic canvasses from the 1970s by the late John Hoyland, one of Britain’s finest abstract painters. Visitors are greeted by the shining bronze Portrait of a Young Man Standing by Dr Leonard McComb RA.

In the largest room, Gallery III, smaller works are displayed against a matte grey background. There is a pleasing sense of flow in these displays, which prove that small-scale art works can be as powerful as larger ones, and which endorses the democratic nature of the exhibition. Between the rooms, one can enjoy vistas of large canvases, and glimpses of architectural models and sculptures.

As always, the Summer Exhibition is a grand melting pot, appealing to many different artistic tastes and styles, from the innovative to derivative, the ridiculous to the sublime, the glib to the profound. But it is this very hotch-potch of art which makes the exhibition so successful and popular, and this year’s hang is one of the best I’ve seen in recent years.

Summer Exhibition 2012, at Royal Academy of ArtsFrances Wilson reviews the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition 2012.4