These days, access to public collections is as much a matter of their digital reach as it is of visitor facilities or convenient opening hours. The Art UK website, which currently features images and records of more than 213,000 artworks in UK collections, makes the nation’s art available in a way that has no international rival in terms of its ambition, generosity of spirit, or coherence.
Art UK evolved out of the Public Catalogue Foundation, which launched in 2002 with the aim of publishing every oil painting in public ownership in the country, and the BBC Your Paintings website, which has now been supplanted by Art UK’s own cleanly designed website. The latter successfully balances the need for an efficient research tool and the prospect of stimulating curiosity among its visitors, whatever their age or level of knowledge – not unlike many of the institutions that it works with and promotes.
The opportunities that Art UK creates for scholars are many and various. Most prominently, there is the chance to share information and collaborate on discoveries, attributions, and the like via the Art Detective section of the website. But beyond that are the types of connection that the site makes possible for curators, academics and art dealers as they conduct research. Searching across collections for artists, subjects, or themes, the structured data (tags) attached to each artwork consistently throw up surprising groupings or correlations. The website’s ability to bridge scholarship and public engagement has been clear this autumn in Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, a BBC series that has seen the attribution of a number of important works in regional collections after they initially aroused interest on Art UK.
Art UK is currently seeking match funding for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant that will allow it, in partnership with the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) and others, to develop an ambitious photographic record of the nation’s sculpture. On the evidence of Art UK, this promises to be another invaluable public resource.