I’ve said it before and I will say it again, because it really matters: the Artist Rooms collection, founded in 2008 through the generous vision of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, is a startling national asset. As it begins a fourth successive tour of galleries throughout Britain, this public collection of contemporary art is changing the very fabric of our visual culture.
There is only one contrast, one conflict that matters when it comes to art. Modern versus traditional? Don’t be daft. Painting versus installation? Yawn. The only struggle that matters is the timeless war between good and bad art. In Britain, because of prejudices rooted deep in our history, museums have long possessed plenty of examples of great Renaissance or Romantic art, but few masterpieces of modernity. This distorts our entire experience of art: it makes arguments about artistic value oddly thin and ideological, because people are unfamiliar with first-rate examples of the art of the past 50 years.
Artist Rooms is changing all that. This collection could easily fill a museum of its own, and would be a major national attraction if it did. But it is being used in a far more radical and liberating way. With the support of the Art Fund, its outstanding examples of works by the best artists of recent times are shown in rotation in public galleries around Britain. Museums get a boost, and audiences everywhere are introduced to top-quality modern art. In the latest round of exhibitions, there is even a game to make it still more accessible to a young public.