Bob and Roberta Smith, “Through Our Public Collections We All Own Art” (2015) (all images courtesy Art UK unless otherwise noted)

“THROUGH OUR PUBLIC COLLECTIONS WE ALL OWN ART,” reads a new painting by British artist Bob and Roberta Smith (who is one guy). The typographic painting was commissioned for the launch of Art UK, a sprawling new website that aims to make digital images of all publicly owned art in Britain accessible to anyone with an internet connection.


Artist Bob and Roberta Smith at work on a commission for Art UK, 2015

Most of the UK’s public art — about 80% of it — is not currently accessible to the general public. Much of it is in storage or in buildings with limited access, like the Palace of Westminster. Art UK plans to make even these hidden works visible. “Art UK is amazing,” Bob and Roberta Smith, whose painted sign work has long focused on art as an agent for social change, tells Hyperallergic. “It allows the world to see what great artworks we have in British collections and in the mix celebrates civic pride and public virtue.”

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Searching Art UK for England’s publicly-owned cat art (screen shot by the author)

Art UK already features the nation’s entire 200,000-strong collection of publicly-owned oil paintings, and it is poised to grow from there. The site is a collaboration between the BBC, Bob and Roberta Smith, the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF, now called Art UK), and 3,261 public collections, including those of the National Trust, Government Art Collection, and English Heritage. Smaller institutions, like universities and hospitals, often don’t have the means to make their own websites featuring their public art collections. Art UK solves that problem by featuring their collections on this one comprehensive national platform. Some private collections, whose artworks are even more cordoned-off from the public, are joining too, including all Oxford and some Cambridge colleges.

It’s not the first attempt to digitally catalogue England’s public art — Art UK replaces and radically expands upon the collection of Your Paintings, a website launched in 2011 that featured 200,000 images of the UK’s publicly owned oil paintings. Art UK, hosted on its own server because of its massive scale, will also include watercolors, pastels, drawings, and prints. In 2017, Art UK start photographing the nation’s collection of sculpture from the last thousand years.


Art UK search results

Art UK’s small staff has enlisted users to help it grow. Tagger, a crowdsourcing platform, lets the public tag images, and a feature called Art Detective allows the public to help identify unlabeled artworks. The catalogue is searchable by style, region, type, subject matter, and keyword. Want to browse all of England’s public cat art? There are currently 205 images tagged “cats.” Want to know where to find abstract expressionist paintings in London? The search function will map their locations for you. It’s also a source of more than 11,000 artworks under the Creative Commons license.


Art UK’s homepage

The site makes a case for the internet as the great democratizer of the art world — you no longer need to go to a fancy college to browse that fancy college’s art collection, for example. But some might fear it’ll give the public an excuse to not go see art in person. Since an photograph on a screen is no substitute for an original piece, the real-life locations of the site’s artworks are mapped and the site offers advice on when and how to go see them. But realistically, most visitors will never make it to, say, Beamish, England to see “Cats in a Basket” in person. It’s worth falling down this digital rabbit-hole if only to discover similar weirdness. Browse the collection here.

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.