Tour of beauty

Artist Rooms enlightens places other exhibitions do not reach. Alex Danchev lauds Anthony d'Offay's efforts to bring art to all

December 16, 2010

Last year, Andy Warhol went to Wolverhampton, Joseph Beuys to Bexhill-on-Sea. This year, Robert Mapplethorpe turned up in Eastbourne, Diane Arbus in Nottingham and Ian Hamilton Finlay in Stornoway.

These amazing resurrections were matched by the surprising peregrinations of living artists, among them Ed Ruscha to Inverness, Gerhard Richter to Leicester, Anselm Kiefer to Gateshead, Gilbert and George to Edinburgh and Bill Viola to Orkney.

Like Bob Dylan, these artists are perpetually on tour. Unlike Dylan, they travel to every corner of the kingdom. For them, all venues are equal. Tate Modern vies with the Pier Art Centre, Stromness. Next year, Kiefer is off to Llandudno, Ruscha to Thurso, Warhol to Bexhill, Viola to Kilmarnock. This is the Artist Rooms tour - perhaps the greatest experiment in the democratisation of contemporary art ever conducted.

"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." To each his own artwork.

The response has been significant. Warhol in Wolverhampton attracted 87,000 visitors, Arbus in Nottingham 64,000, Beuys in Bexhill 56,000. The more remote the venue, the more impressive the turnout. The video artist Viola attracted more than 14,000 visitors in Orkney (population 20,000); the stone carver and sculptor Hamilton Finlay about 10,000 in Stornoway (population 12,000) in one month. Artist Rooms touches the parts that other exhibitions do not reach.

This phenomenon is the creation of one man: Anthony d'Offay, the legendary London art dealer, collector and gallerist, who shut up shop in 2001 and in 2008 offered his collection to the nation at cost price (£26 million) rather than its value at that time (£125 million).

In his heyday, d'Offay represented the cream of international artists. As a collector he is similarly discerning. His holdings are breathtaking: a total of 725 works, by 25 artists, making 50 rooms - a museum's worth of modern and contemporary art, much of it beyond the wildest dreams of our national collections.

Happily, the government did its bit, and the collection was acquired jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate.

So began the adventure of Artist Rooms. Influential dealers and collectors are also taste-makers and educators, and d'Offay is no exception. After quality, his ruling notion is access. He wants the work to be seen and not squirrelled away. More than that, he wants it to be seen by as many people as possible. Everyone, especially young people, should have the chance to commune with the best contemporary art, challenging as it may be.

"I felt young people who hadn't seen contemporary art might find photography a direct way into it," he told The Art Fund, the national fundraising charity. "Take a Mapplethorpe self-portrait. Why did he put a whip up his backside? Why has he got a knife? Or Arbus - why do these people look tortured, on drugs or alienated? Who are these dropouts, these freaks? They are people dealing with fear and vulnerability, aren't they? Those works address the kind of questions young people ask themselves, questions about their own identity, their sexuality, where they're going."

Thus the rooms became a rotation rather than an extension - not exactly a museum without walls, as Andre Malraux once imagined, but an exemplary travelling show.

D'Offay's hope is that exposure to the work will somehow improve life chances. That notion is born of his bedrock belief that art can be a source of personal transformation, even salvation, if only we can get at it from an early age.

Such belief is derived from his childhood experiences in Leicester: "Some of us have tough parents and difficult backgrounds. As an adolescent, I would have been lost without literature and museums."

Parked in the Leicester Museum while his mother did the shopping, young Anthony developed a syncretic passion for Egyptian mummies, German Expressionism and Francis Bacon. He was hooked and began buying and selling while studying at the University of Edinburgh.

He also began cultivating artists. Hamilton Finlay recounted the tale of the eager-beaver undergraduate coming to see him. The artist was especially fond of a particular brand of gentleman's relish; d'Offay brought a pot with him. Hamilton Finlay knew the young man was destined for greatness as a dealer when, after lunch, he slipped the relish into his pocket and took it home.

In his heyday, d'Offay became friends with many of the artists he showed and collected: Bacon, Beuys, Mapplethorpe, Richter, Warhol, Lucian Freud, Gilbert and George, Richard Long, among others. Not all of these relationships endured. Gilbert and George parted company with him by fax, explaining their decision to join rival art dealer Jay Jopling by saying: "D'Offay's a cunt and he only likes the world's most expensive artists." A similar charge has been levelled by others. After they fell out, Grayson Perry exhibited a pair of large black ceramic penises titled Portrait of Anthony d'Offay.

Whatever the catfights, d'Offay assembled one of the world's great private collections (while deliberately complementing or supplementing the UK's national holdings). Making it over to the nation - to us - on these terms was an act of strategic philanthropy, or "imaginative generosity" as Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, put it, without precedent.

And Artist Rooms continues to multiply. Collections breed: artists make gifts of their own work - Ruscha's The Music From The Balconies (1984) was added in 2009 - and d'Offay himself is still buying. A selection from his long loan to the collection of 177 of August Sander's photographs will be shown in Edinburgh in 2011.

Given d'Offay's provenance, it is no doubt appropriate that the Artist Rooms showing in the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester until the end of February showcases Richter, one of the most important and influential artists of the past half-century (and the subject of a forthcoming extravaganza at Tate Modern to mark his 80th birthday).

The Richter Room is a model of its kind. It contains a version of one of his major works, 48 Portraits (1972), and a masterly selection of his virtuoso oeuvre, from his trademark "photo-paintings" to the stunning abstracts; from Mustang Squadron (1964) to Cross (1997); from Uncle Rudi (1965), who waltzed off to war in his Nazi enthusiasm and was killed within days, to Self-Portrait Standing (1991), a sequence of identical black-and-white photographs progressively obscured with smeared red paint. There is more to Richter than meets the eye.

He is one of the signature artists of this extraordinary project. He is also something of a philosopher: "What counts is the world of the mind, and of art, in which we grow up. Over the decades, this remains our home and our world. We know the names of those artists and musicians and poets, philosophers and scientists; we know their work and their lives. To us, they - and not the politicians and rulers - are the history of humankind; the others are barely names to us, and the associations that they arouse, if any, are horrific ones: for rulers can make their mark only through atrocities. No greater contrast is conceivable than that between Kafka and Kaiser Wilhelm II."

If that sounds a little like the credo of Anthony d'Offay, the dealer-turned-curator of his own benefaction, the unlikely lad from Leicester is fond of quoting Richter's inspiring dictum: "Art is the highest form of hope."

Artists' rooms are capsules of that scarce commodity.

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