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Academy show that can help to make a student's career

It is a somewhat murky early February afternoon in central Edinburgh and the lofty walls of the Royal Scottish Academy, repainted a dazzling white, are subject to the ministrations of numerous artists.

Everywhere people stand on ladders, hunch over projectors or dab at the walls with a paintbrush - standing, surveying, retuning. There is little conversation, bar the odd discussion about placement or hanging. Amidst the discarded bubble wrap, screws and planks of wood, the work of those selected to hang in this career-opening gambit for recent graduates is slowly finding its place.

It has been five years now since the RSA relaunched the former student show as New Contemporaries. And the change is not just in title alone. The old show was not selective and gave every graduate from the Scottish art schools the opportunity to exhibit one work in a show, which stacked them high on the considerably vertiginous walls of the William Henry Playfair-designed RSA building on the Mound. But New Contemporaries is rigorously selective, giving a more considered platform to a bright young coterie of students picked by an ever-changing board of Academicians and art school staff.

This year, the job of convenor fell to painter Alan Robb, RSA, who, alongside Academicians local to each of the art schools, RSA director Colin Greenslade and programme coordinator Alisa Lindsay, was given the task of visiting each of last year's degree shows and picking the best.

"It is really just about the impact of the work on the day," says Greenslade, who has, by nature of his job, been on all five selection committees. "We see the work before it is given any mark by the examiners, so there are always students who get Firsts who wonder why they were not picked for the show. But it is about how the work will translate to the gallery. There are very few closed rooms and we have limitations on what we can do with the floors and the ceilings. And, of course, a different team would pick different artists."

The number of students chosen from any one school is strictly proportionate at one in seven, even if there are other students worthy of inclusion. "It all comes down to hard decisions," says Greenslade, who tells me that they view the works twice on the same day before coming to their final choice.

If the airy RSA halls are in some disarray when I walk round some 10 days before New Contemporaries is due to open, one can sense the show emerging from behind the installation ephemera. Despite the fact that much is not yet on the wall (or floor or ceiling), there are a few things that catch the eye.

Immediately arresting is Dundee graduate Johnny Lyon's large-scale photographs, which show the artist and others using the wooden weapons he has hand-hewn and carefully laid out in boxes on tables beneath the images. In a hallway in the next room, South African Protea flower stamens, intricately sewn together in a long strand or "woven" into a rug, flank a mud-splattered wall in the painstaking and beautiful work of fellow Duncan Of Jordanstone graduate, Sam Baxter. I was taken, too, by Glasgow graduate Abigale Neate-Wilson's Rosetta Stone screenprints.

m any of the video works will be displayed in the downstairs galleries, which have much lower ceilings, In the library I found Morgan Cahn, an American artist who studied in Dundee, in conversation with sculptor Jamie Davidson, from Moray. Cahn is a performance artist who has turned her performances into reliquaries - based on mediaeval religious reliquaries - containing anything from a fingernail she lost in an art accident to her favourite sewing needle.

"It's a chance to do something new, if you are able," says Cahn, who has clearly grasped the opportunity with both hands. She tells me how exciting it was to see the printed card announcing that she had been selected for the New Contemporaries show placed on the wall by her degree show last summer. It has given her a post-degree show focus, she says.

And it is these relatively small steps along the road that can help build a career, as Greenslade is aware. This year, alongside other opportunities, a major new bursary worth £14,000 and a year's mentoring will be awarded to one of the New Contemporaries artists by the Fleming-Wyfold Foundation. It fits well with this RSA initiative to support promising young artists on the somewhat perilous route out into the modern art world.

But what will really cement New Contemporaries "meteoric rise", says Greenslade, is the success of its "graduates". Recent success stories include Rachel Maclean (2010), who will represent CCA in this year's Generation Show, Ernesto Canovas (2010), Mary Ramsden (2009) and Kevin Harman (2009), who has been picked up by the Ingleby Gallery. "We have given ourselves 10 years for someone really amazing to make an impact," says Greenslade. "In 10 years, that is 600 artists, so you would expect there to be someone."

New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, The Mound, Edinburgh (0131 225 6671, www.royalscottishacademy.org ) until March 12. Selected work tours to the Fleming Collection in London, March 24-May 31

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