The new documentary Exhibitionists: Road To The RHA, premiering on RTÉ One on Thursday, June 27th, goes behind-the-scenes at the 196-year-old Royal Hibernian Academy, including access to the judging process for the exhibition fondly known as 'The Annual' for the very first time. 

Abigail O'Brien, acclaimed contemporary artist and President of The Royal Hibernian Academy, writes for Culture about 'The Annual' and the important part the RHA plays in championing new Irish artists. 

The art business is like a graph - there are always highs and lows. Over a lifetime of working as an artist, sometimes your work is in demand, and sometimes you feel ignored. The crucial thing is to stay true to your own vision of your work practice and to keep going.

WATCH: Exhibitionists: Road To The RHA - meet artists Hetty And Jimmy Lawlor:

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Being an artist is a daily commitment. It is also a privilege to be able to do something every day which I love and am passionate about.

In 2006, I was invited to become an associate member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. I was elected as a full member in 2009.

I never imagined I would or could be elected President, and it is a huge honour to be the first woman President in the 196-year history of the Academy. It seems almost silly to be pointing out that I am the first female President in this day and age.

The RHA has changed radically over the past ten years, and we have almost achieved gender parity. We know that the RHA used to be considered a bit of a boys club. Now we have some of the best female artists in the country as full members.

WATCH: Exhibitionists: Road To The RHA - meet artist Brian O'Rourke:

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I take my role as President very seriously because the RHA has a unique place in the Irish arts and in Irish public life. Because it has an incredible history and an exciting future. It is wonderful to work with our director Patrick Murphy, marking his 21st Annual this year, and all the RHA team, staff, and volunteers. Patrick's energy and enthusiasm are infectious.

The Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition - known as 'The Annual' - is open to all, and all the work is reviewed on an anonymous basis. It is gender, age, geography, race, religion and creed-blind. The RHA is a 32 county organization and has always been. The Annual also offers a prize fund of €63,000, the largest in Ireland.

This year, we selected works from an open submission entry of 2.698 and chose just 320 artists. With an acceptance rate of approximately 12%, you really are seeing the very best of the submissions.

WATCH: Exhibitionists: Road To The RHA - meet the judges:

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A minimum of six members from the RHA spend a full week looking at each artwork. The works in the final cut will have been viewed twice. The process is done on an anonymous basis (although clearly, from time to time, some artists will be already known to the panel) and is democratic. It is an important part of the Exhibition that the selected works are shown alongside members, architects, and invited artists, who may be more established. This gives the show a very strong punch.

To be selected for The Annual is seen as a real feather in an artist’s cap. I have been putting work into the annual since I was a student. There were times of great disappointment when my work was rejected, and times of celebration when I was accepted. This is the story of all artists and what we learn from the experience is to keep working, keep improving and developing our practice and to never give up.

RHA President Abigail O'Brien (Pic: Podge Kelly)

The Irish art market is very small; in the past 10 years, one-quarter of Dublin's commercial galleries have closed their doors. As a result, the traditional route to market for artists is becoming more difficult and the RHA Annual Exhibition has grown in importance as an opportunity to be selected and showcased and even sold in the highest quality setting. The RHA's focus is on supporting artists.

Selling works keeps the lights on and pays the studio rent. This is something which is becoming increasingly difficult as surging rent prices in Dublin and cities nationwide, push artists out to remote locations. This is an enormous loss to the cultural life of our cities. It makes our central location on Ely Place, in Dublin, as a showcase and advocate for the visual arts, even more vital.

Our stated mission is to develop, affirm and challenge the public's perception of the visual arts. In 2023, we will celebrate the 200 year anniversary of our charter. We are planning a great celebration.

Exhibitionists: Road To The RHA, RTÉ One, Thursday, June 27th at 10.15pm