Director's Blog

Celebrate British artists with Art Everywhere

  • 9 August 2013
  • By Dr Stephen Deuchar
  • Director

As Art Everywhere launches, the charitable project bringing art to our streets this August, the Art Fund's director says its time to celebrate British artists.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

In my 12 or so years as Director of Tate Britain I was involved in organising more than sixty art exhibitions. They ranged from masterpieces of medieval sculpture to the surprises of the annual Turner Prize, and when they'd shown in London they often travelled on to venues elsewhere in the world:  taking great British art to new audiences in Beijing and Moscow, or Istanbul and Sharjah, was certainly a challenge, but always rewarding.  From time to time you might find a 'lost' British masterpiece and bring it back to London on temporary loan - a Bacon triptych found in a basement in Tehran, for example, or a huge Burne-Jones briefly repatriated from Puerto Rico. At their best, exhibitions involve surprise - art put in unfamiliar contexts, seen in different ways, by new people, taking on fresh meanings, in unexpected places.

Art Everywhere, a new collaboration between the Art Fund, Tate, Richard Reed (co-founder of Innocent Drinks) and a number of other partners united behind a cause that is not only charitable but groundbreaking, is as important as any exhibition project I've ever been part of.  For the next two weeks, tens of thousands of billboard and commercial poster sites across the country will feature large-scale images of British works of art from museum collections, ranging from Hans Holbein's iconic The Ambassadors (1533) through Humphrey Ocean's Lord Volvo and his Estate (1982) to Mona Hatoum's Performance Still (1995). They will crop up everywhere from the 12.19m wide digital billboard at Westfield to the back of a bus in Belfast.You may drive past the dying Ophelia at Shepherd's Bush roundabout or find Lucian Freud in the station cafe at Hull. Lowry might get a couple of weeks on Eastbourne seafront and Hepworth could be heading for Aberdeen. You will see and feel all this not in the hushed environs of an art gallery but as part of daily life, the controlling hand of the artist or curator replaced by the democracy of public will.

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991

The art consumer, rather than the art provider, was in charge from the start. Although a group of expert curators compiled the original list of 100 suggested images, many of their ideas - from the esoteric to the overfamiliar - were rejected by the public liking their favourites through Facebook, and the final list makes up a powerful, diverse and confident public exhibition. It may not be surprising that Waterhouse's Lady of Shallot got most votes of all, but who would have expected Sargent's Gassed, a harrowing image from the Imperial War Museum, or a still from Zarina Bhimji's haunting but little publicised film Out of Blue, to make the cut as well? These 57 images, drawn from six centuries of artistic endeavour, are the discerning product of popular choice and an exhilarating expression of contemporary British taste.

If this extraordinary undertaking affects people's lives in some way, as I believe it must (whose day will not be altered by seeing Martin Creed's ambiguously reassuring neon message Everything is Going to be Alright?) it will have accomplished its mission, and it will have helped draw attention to the glories of public museum collections as well as the quality of British creativity through to the present day. This is not a jingoistic celebration by nature, but it's true that international recognition of British artists has probably never been higher: from David Hockney to Tracey Emin and Gary Hume to Cornelia Parker, they are admired across the world. Perhaps next year we might try a global version?

Art Everywhere will be live on 22,000 poster sites across the UK from 12-25 August. Find out more on Art Everywhere's website and follow the project on Twitter.