Friday, 14 December 2012

BBC Your Paintings: Mission Accomplished?

News from Robert Bell on the BBC Your Paintings blog:

Today the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) and the BBC completed their hugely ambitious project to put online the United Kingdom’s entire collection of oil paintings in public ownership. This makes the UK the first country in the world to give such access to its national collection of paintings. In total, 3,217 venues across the UK have participated in the project and 211,861 paintings are now on the Your Paintings website.

When you consider how difficult it can be to get hold of a single decent image of a painting, this achievement is extraordinary. I've only been able to dip into the gradually expanding archive over the past few years but so far the reproductions have almost always been good and the accompanying information accurate. My only quibble is that the project's focus on oil painting means that watercolourists don't get much of a look-in, but perhaps this will be remedied in the future. Besides, if you attempted to catalogue all of the watercolours in public ownership in Britain it might take rather a long time.

I'm not sure anyone's taken an approach like this to a nation's paintings before. What is perhaps most remarkable about the project is that, other than the focus on a specific medium, it is (as far as one can tell) non-selective. There may be artists and pictures missing for one reason and another, but the range of published work is impressive; how wonderful, on reading about Algernon Newton or Meredith Frampton or Alfred Munnings or I don't know who else, to be able to view a good selection of their work and find out where to see particular paintings.

I love the idea that you can now hear about an exhibition or an artist and, without having to order books or trawl through old volumes in the reference library, see for yourself what they're all about. The question now is, what happens next? The catalogue is only useful if it is used, so can the project help foster interest in painting among a population far more attuned to music, film and TV? How might this happen?

A while ago I reviewed an entertaining series of short films, in which various critics and celebrities picked their favourite paintings from the archive. That was a nice idea, and one which perhaps went some way to attracting a mainstream audience to the backwater of art. What I'd like to see is some connection being made between the appreciation of paintings and people making art for themselves. The explosion of interest in Urban Sketching shows what can happen when people are encouraged to get out there, draw and share their work - is it possible that people would be more interested in looking at pictures in the context of their own creativity, rather than as examples of art history?

It always strikes me as odd that the BBC has an entire radio station devoted (for the most part) to music of the past, yet visual art of the past struggles to win attention. Every city has a concert hall where people pay good money to enjoy classical music, while any art museum that charges admission has to fight for visitors. Perhaps part of the problem is that a hundred different venues can host a Beethoven symphony on the same night, whereas you can only show the Mona Lisa in one place at one time.

But I don't believe for a minute that British people are innately more interested in music than in art. Show kids an interesting art exhibition and they'll love it. Offer a city's art fans some really top notch pictures to look at and they'll turn up in droves. The problem is not lack of interest, but lack of opportunity. If we could only stop worrying about the value of paintings as material objects and focus on their worth as beautiful things to be shared with all people; if only it could be made easier for provincial museums and galleries to borrow pictures by popular artists...

Well, thanks to the BBC and the PCF we can at least see reproductions of pictures by many thousands of artists. We couldn't do that before, and now we can.

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