Turning art into advertising

The Art Everywhere plan to plaster art on UK billboards is more about public relations than public art.

Wendy Earle

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It was recently announced that over the course of two weeks in August, more than 15,000 billboards around the UK will feature super-size works of ‘great British artists’ as part of the Art Everywhere campaign. The art works and billboards are being offered free, but the public is being asked to donate enough to cover the cost of printing and, if possible, additional billboards.

This project to ‘flood the streets with art’ is the brainchild of Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent drinks, who, alongside the project’s sponsors, the Art Fund, announced: ‘Our vision this summer is that we want to flood the streets of the UK with the greatest art this country has ever created… There is no agenda beyond that. It’s about putting beautiful wonderful things in as many places as possible to be seen by as many people as possible.’

Reed is perhaps being more than a little disingenuous when he says there is no agenda behind Art Everywhere. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, certainly seems to think there is a reason for ‘flooding the streets with art’. ‘At a time when people think about cuts’, Serota said, ‘[Art Everywhere is] about opening up galleries, it’s about presenting British art to the audience that owns it – it’s all from public ownership – and reminding people these great things are in our museums and galleries and in most cases are free to see on any day of the week’.

So, these great works of art are to be thrust in front of the public to admire and debate. People going about their daily business of walking, cycling or driving to work are expected to be inspired by billboards promoting art instead of lingerie or dog food. They may never have visited an art gallery – and may never intend to – but the billboards will tell them that they should be proud that such art is, as Reed so sensitively puts it, ‘a core competency of this country’.

Perhaps it is churlish not to welcome this initiative, but the air of desperation which surrounds it is unmistakeable. Moreover, plastering great art on thousands of billboards completely misjudges the pleasures and insights we get from viewing works of art in a gallery among other art works. According to Reed, ‘there is something so nourishing, exciting and surprising in seeing art in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see it’. But bringing works of art out of the gallery and putting them on general view among the detritus of daily life ‘for everyone, everywhere’ to advertise ‘the legacy that this country’s got in terms of art’ (Reed again) seems to diminish the artworks, not elevate them. After all, making a visit to a gallery a special occasion, like going to the theatre or opening a good book, implies that you intend to concentrate and give the artists’ achievements the consideration they deserve. How can billboards high above the crowds possibly do the works justice? And how can people, rushing to work or doing their shopping, be expected to set their daily chores aside to gain any insights from contemplating these works?A bustling high-street or a motorway flyover are not ideal spots for a bit of aesthetic experience.

It is surely better to be honest and describe this as what it is: a huge advertising campaign. It is not for the good of the public, it is for the benefit of Britain’s art galleries. Perhaps people should be reminded that the ‘great things in our museums and galleries’ are in public ownership, but the underlying threat – ‘you better appreciate them or you’ll lose them’ – seems cynical and manipulative. The idea that in the face of major spending cuts, museums and galleries should have a special status is unlikely to garner much support.

The Art Fund is asking everyone to give at least £3 towards the campaign. Someone ought to suggest that if the arts sector is really so desperate for cash, the money it has should really be spent on new works of art (or conserving the old) rather than a massive, overblown PR campaign.

Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager, Birkbeck, University of London and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

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