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We should all celebrate the people and projects behind art’s growing popularity

28 November 2016

Growing up in London in the 1990s, I remember hearing the complaint, perhaps from pundits in the papers or on TV, that the capital had no international modern or contemporary art gallery to speak of. It was a sweeping moan, of course, with little attention paid to the various museums and institutions that did exist to encourage artists or promote the avant-garde. Nevertheless, it was indicative of the gulf that existed between those in the know about this material and a wider public for whom it still seemed, if not anathema, then at least still quite alien.

How times have changed: today it is difficult to visit a fine art gallery or historic house in the UK without stumbling across a contemporary art installation; in a sense, the contemporary has now become our most visible bridge to the art of the past. And there can be no doubt that, some two decades on, London has become what is probably the world’s leading destination for international contemporary art, with New York as its only serious sparring partner.

At the forefront of this development have been Tate Modern and its chief standard bearer, Sir Nicholas Serota, who has been the director of Tate since 1988. The collecting and exhibitions policy that Tate Modern has adopted, with its revised focus on women artists and artists from non-Western traditions, has established a new paradigm that MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, and other leading international institutions now wish to emulate. As Serota tells me in an interview in this issue, the success of Tate Modern has also instilled confidence in curators and audiences at smaller museums across the UK.

Serota is the winner of the Apollo Personality of the Year Award for 2016. He has done as much as anyone to develop the audience for contemporary art in the UK; and alongside Neil MacGregor and a few others, he has been one of  the leading advocates in the past two decades for what our museums ought to make possible. He moves on to chair Arts Council England next year at a time when funding for regional, and in particular local authority museums, has in many cases been severely diminished. Let us hope that his legendary negotiating skills accompany him as he strides away from the Turbine Hall.

We are extremely grateful to Porsche for their support for this year’s Apollo Awards. All of this year’s winners have increased knowledge of, or access to art in public collections – and most have achieved both things simultaneously, with specialist and popular appeal. Our Artist of the Year, Cornelia Parker, curated the outstanding ‘Found’ at the Foundling Museum, London, an exhibition that seemed all the more heartening in this turbulent year for the way it located types of beauty and belonging in provisional things. National Gallery Singapore, our Museum Opening of the Year, has set itself up – with the confidence of a Tate Modern, but with its own distinctive voice – as the leading Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art museum in the region.

Confidence also defines our leading exhibition of 2016. The Het Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, staged an extraordinary display that brought together 20 of the 25 extant panels painted by Hieronymus Bosch, without having a single work by the master in its own holdings. It is for museums to forge ways ahead like this, in finding the convergence between specialist and popular appeal, and even more so after a year in which expert and public opinion  have found themselves so bitterly divided. A remarkable acquisition by any museum’s standards, Fra Angelico’s Virgin of the Pomegranate at the Prado (our Acquisition of the Year), encapsulates such possibility.

Two winners testify to the power that images have when they circulate widely, and how they can increase knowledge of, and stimulate interest in art. Our Book of the Year, Antony Griffiths’ history of European print production, looks set to become the standard text on the subject. And our Digital Innovation of the Year, the Art UK website, promises to reveal the nation’s collections still further, and to all manner of audiences, as its remit expands in coming years. Public collections, be they historical or contemporary, really can be public now.

From the December issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.