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Britain Embraces Modern Art


Love it or hate it – modern art is all around Britain.  No longer confined to the private collections of mad millionaires or bunged in the basements of obscure provincial museums, it’s in your face in some surprising places. And thanks to heritage lottery funding and generous benefactors, you can see lots of it free of charge.

One event certain to hit the art world’s radar later this year is the opening of the Saatchi Gallery on October 9th. In its magnificent new Chelsea home at the Duke of York’s HQ on the King’s Road, this will be one of the largest contemporary galleries anywhere in the world. Echoing a common cultural theme this year, Saatchi’s inaugural exhibition will feature new Chinese art. Admission to all shows will be completely free

Britain now has a terrific portfolio of contemporary art venues. Many are in London, but even more are elsewhere. From Penzance to the Pentland Firth, scarcely any sizeable town and certainly no major city is incapable of staging a decent modern art show these days. Some of our best public galleries and museums are attractions in themselves. Sensational architecture, impressive settings and high-quality facilities make them worth a visit regardless of what’s going on inside. With waterfront views or landscaped gardens, cafés, shops and learning centres, they’re great places to chill out, meet friends, have lunch and look for presents – perhaps even a canny investment. In the uncharted waters of contemporary art, there’s always the chance of spotting some future masterpiece before anyone else does.

Art for Everyone

Trafalgar Square’s ‘Fourth Plinth’, originally destined for some well-bred equestrian statue, is now firmly established as a rolling showcase of contemporary art. New works attract as much critical comment as the Tate’s controversial Turner Prize. Forthcoming ‘artists in residence’ will be Antony Gormley, whose proposed One or Other is a human tableau involving hundreds of volunteers, and Yinka Shonibare, paying homage to the square’s most famous occupant with Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.

Even a ride on the Tube can be an artistic experience, with poems to read inside the carriages, and tiled wall designs by distinguished modern artists at Underground stations. Transport for London’s current Art on the Underground initiative features a series of new works on temporary display at various stations. Stanmore for instance, a secret wartime outpost of Bletchley Park, intrigues passengers with Serena Korda’s The Answer Lies at the End of the Line, an entertaining crossword puzzle with clues inspired by the Enigma code-breakers.

Modern sculpture occupies public spaces all over Britain, especially in London. Barbara Hepworth’s WingedFigure adorns the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis, Eric Gill’s Prospero and Ariel deck the façade of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton theorises in the forecourt of the British Library. Some of London’s best recent monuments are war memorials. Noteworthy examples include the National Monument to the Women of World War II near the Cenotaph on Whitehall, an imaginatively simple idea depicting a coat-rack of female uniforms (John W Mills, 2005), Animals in War near Hyde Park (David Backhouse, 2004) and the Battle of Britain Monument on the Embankment (Paul Day, 2005). Another of Paul Day’s eye-catching works (The Meeting Place) divides opinions in the newly renovated St Pancras Station.

Civic buildings, urban plazas and heroes’ tombs are traditional settings for monumental art. But a stroll along a quiet beach or a drive up the A1 can bring some unexpected encounters with the avant garde. Maggi Hambling’s huge scallop-shell monument to Benjamin Britten erupts in tattered grandeur from Aldeburgh’s shingle banks.  At Crosby Beach on Merseyside, a hundred mysterious cast-iron figures stand dotted or half-hidden in the sand along a 3km stretch of shoreline. Antony Gormley’s Another Place, exhibited here temporarily in 2006, has now been granted permanent planning permission. Gormley’s best-known work, the wide-winged Angel of the North, greets motorists just south of Gateshead. Passengers travelling through Kent along the continental high-speed rail-link may soon be welcomed by a counterpart southern ‘Angel’ – possibly a gigantic white horse by Mark Wallinger, a leading contender in a competition to be judged this autumn.

Contemporary Galleries in London

No one even vaguely interested in contemporary art should miss the Tate Modern on Bankside. The building itself is splendid enough to justify a visit, and its riverside setting gives wonderful views. All permanent exhibits are free, but temporary shows charge admission. Another mainstream modern art venue is the South Bank’s Hayward Gallery, renowned and reviled in equal measure for its brutalist post-war architecture. The ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), the Barbican, and the Camden Arts Centre put on innovative multi-media exhibitions throughout the year. Smaller public galleries dedicated to modern art include the delightful Serpentine in Kensington Gardens, and the much-loved Whitechapel, which re-opens its doors early next year after a major refit and enlargement. In a stylish marriage of form and function, the Design Museum casts new light on everyday objects and inventions that shape our lives.

London has dozens of commercial galleries, most of which welcome visitors free of charge, whether or not you intend to buy (note that some don’t accept credit cards). Many smart premises colonise the well-heeled streets of St James’s, while edgier venues hang out in cool Clerkenwell loft conversions or gritty dockland warehouses. High-profile galleries with fingers on the art world’s pulse include the Gagosian at two locations (Mayfair and Kings Cross), White Cube at SW1 and N1, the Paris-based Opera Gallery in Bond Street, and the Lisson Gallery in NW1. In the East End are the highly respected Chisenhale Gallery and Matt’s Gallery. Peckham’s recently expanded South London Gallery was the cradle of several leading British artists including Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn.The Photographers’ Gallery off Leicester Square is a leading venue for all aspects of photographic art. Fashions come and go, and what’s hot this season may not be next year. You might even spot something interesting (and probably affordable) on the railings of Green Park or Hyde Park. It’s a free show – and you get to talk to the artists. Sunday is the best day to go.

Regional Contemporary Galleries

Even a selective list of modern art galleries outside London could fill many pages. In the far north, Orkney’s Pier Arts Centre on Stromness harbour, rearranged in an attractive new building in 2007, provides a glorious sea-and-sky backdrop for a remarkable private collection of 20th-century art (Hepworth, Heron, Nicholson, Gabo etc). Also in Scotland, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) is the second-most visited contemporary gallery outside London. Rival Edinburgh boasts the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, whose parkland grounds provide a fine setting for sculpture by Moore and Hepworth. Inside are works by the Scottish-Italian artist Paolozzi. Leading venue in Wales is the Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth (MOMA), based around a former Wesleyan chapel known as The Tabernacle (now used for performing arts).

The north-east hit the headlines in 2007 with the opening of the £14.2 m MIMA, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This sleek iconic structure of glass, slate and limestone houses five different galleries, staging quarterly exhibitions from 1900 onwards. Similar venues on Tyneside are Gateshead’s Baltic Centre, a £46 million conversion of the Baltic Flour Mills into a dramatic industrial setting for changing exhibitions, and Sunderland’s Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, another flexible showcase for temporary installations.

Yorkshire, birthplace of several of Britain’s best-known modern artists (Hockney, Moore, Hepworth) has several excellent modern art museums. Salts Mill at Saltaire, an impressive conversion of a 19th-century textile mill, displays David Hockney’s quirky opera sets. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park at West Bretton is an important collection of 20th-century sculpture in 500 acres of 18th-century parkland. Leeds has the Henry Moore Institute, housing the city’s sculpture collections with library and archive facilities. A new Hepworth gallery is planned for Wakefield. Core contents will be the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, and it will occupy a splendid waterfront building due to open in 2009. Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries contain works from many periods, but the Graves Gallery is strong on modern art.

The north-west’s premier contemporary art museum is the Tate Liverpool, largest gallery of its kind outside London, housed in a handsome converted warehouse overlooking the Albert Dock. Manchester’s amazingly designed Lowry arts centre at Salford Quays combines visual and performing arts, predictably featuring the works of L S Lowry among its permanent collection.

East Anglia has the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) on its university campus at Norwich. Contents range over five millennia, but modern works are a strong component, including an important collection of abstract and constructivist art. Leading contemporary gallery in Cambridge is Kettle’s Yard, which showcases local art among its changing exhibitions. Its opposite number in Oxford is the well-regarded Museum of Modern Art, with an international reputation for pioneering exhibitions, as popular for its café as its contents.

Art in the south-east tends to be dominated by London’s gravitational force, but an unexpected new kid on the block is Woking’s Lightbox, winner of this year’s Art Fund Prize. Bristol’s adventurous Arnolfini, set in a dockside warehouse, offers a dynamic contemporary arts programme for the south-west. Cornwall’s outpost of the Tate at St Ives includes the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden. The artist lived here with her husband Ben Nicholson for over 35 years. Both St Ives and Newlyn, near Penzance, are well-established enclaves for UK artists with many local galleries.

Happening Art

The RA’s (Royal Academy) annual Summer Exhibition is a grande bouffe of contemporary art for all tastes. Big names rub shoulders with complete unknowns, and conventional works hang next to ones that are distinctly off the wall. Most items are for sale – once purchased they are marked with a red sticker. Another regular fixture on the modern art world’s calendar is the Turner Prize, normally held at Tate Britain (exceptionally, it relocated to Liverpool in 2008 as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations). It usually generates much heated debate on the nature and quality of contemporary art, and the sanity of the competition’s judges.

Outside London, two of the biggest modern art jamborees are the biennial Manchester International Festival (in odd years, next due July 2009), dedicated to specially commissioned new works right across the spectrum of arts and popular culture, and the prestigious Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts (in even years, next due April 2010).

Many galleries put on a rolling programme of talks, films, workshops and other arts events as well as mainstream exhibitions. As part of the Brighton Festival, the city organises an imaginative series of Artists Open Houses trails, when visitors are invited into local artists’ homes to see their work. Compton Verney, a grand18th-century mansion in rural Warwickshire, is run as an arts trust, welcoming visitors of all ages to a wide range of artistic happenings (exhibitions, workshops, etc).