A huge project has been launched that aims to include every publicly owned painting, drawing, sculpture and print in Britain in one website, creating the most comprehensive access to one country’s art in the world.
The artist Bob and Roberta Smith – who is one man, Patrick Brill – celebrated the creation of Art UK by presenting a new work in his trademark sign-painter’s lettering, proclaiming “through our public collections we all own art”, to the parliamentary art collection, one of more than 3,000 collections already represented on the website.
It was the slogan Brill chose when he stood against Michael Gove in the last general election, he said, reflecting his unease over government cuts to art and education. “The subtext now is the threat to so many local authority museums,” he said, “ we need to recognise and celebrate these collections in order to protect them.”
Andrew Ellis, director of Art UK said it was a momentous day that would open the art in public collections for enjoyment, learning and research. Although the public owns the art, about 80% is in storage, on the walls of council offices, fire stations hospitals and other civic buildings, or in the Palace of Westminster, where portraits line the walls of the Speaker’s magnificent reception rooms where the project was launched.
Some private collections, whose works of art are even less accessible to the general public, including all Oxford and some Cambridge colleges, are also joining.
The database already holds more than 200,000 images of oil paintings, and work will begin next year to capture and add more than 100,000 sculptures, many through 3D scanning, with a £2.8m Heritage Lottery grant.
The website will create a portal for the 3,261 collections represented – from rooms full of red-robed mayors and aldermen to the vast collections of the Tate – to upload their drawings, watercolours and prints as well. It will also provide an international shop window for local museums and galleries to sell print-on-demand images and merchandise. Already, with almost no international publicity, close to half the 300,000 site visits each month are from overseas.
Art UK has grown from earlier projects, beginning with the Public Catalogue Foundation charity, which was founded by Fred Hohler in 2002 when he realised how difficult it was to find out anything about the art that in many public buildings. His charity set out to photograph and publish all the oil paintings in public collections in the UK, county by county, including thousands normally inaccessible to the public in stores. His ambition was realised in more than 80 hardback volumes published over the following years.
In 2011 the foundation and the BBC launched Your Paintings to get the images online, building to 212,000 oil paintings from more than 3,000 locations, followed by Art Detective, which allowed the public to help identify artworks and supply extra information, and has resolved many mysteries over artists and subjects.
Ellis said public appetite for the site was unquestionable: when the BBC screened the medieval drama series The White Queen, 400,000 users found their way to the portrait from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on the previous site, showing a slightly less glamorous version of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner but a famous beauty described by contemporaries as having “silver gilt” hair, who successfully held out for marriage and became queen of England.
Ellis also said the project has been run on a shoestring, with a tiny permanent staff. The website has been built on “a very few hundreds of thousands”, and the years of photographing and digitising the oil paintings had cost £6m. When he mentioned this to a contact at the Metropolitan Museum 0f Art in New York, they remarked that it was merely “the price of one good painting at auction” – a sum that would be fantasy money to most of the impoverished regional collections whose treasures are now going on display to the world.