Art UK’s roots go back to 2002, when the Public Catalogue Foundation, a registered charity, was founded by Fred Hohler. Struck by the lack of available information about artworks in public collections, Dr Hohler was determined to improve the public’s access to the art it owned.
The charity was launched at The National Gallery in April 2003. Its objective was to make a photographic record of the nation’s entire collection of oil paintings in public ownership.
This record was to be made accessible to the public through a series of hardback colour catalogues produced principally on a county-by-county basis. There are now over 80 of these in the series and they can be purchased here.
Aware that the project would reach a far wider audience by going online, the Public Catalogue Foundation approached the BBC about a possible digital partnership in 2008.
In 2011 the BBC and Public Catalogue Foundation launched the Your Paintings website. The Tagger project was launched at the same time. During that year Charles Gregson succeeded Fred Hohler as Chairman of the charity.
By the time the oil painting digitisation project had been completed in late 2012, the Your Paintings website displayed 212,000 oil paintings from over 3,000 locations across the UK.
In late 2013 the Masterpieces in Schools project involved schools across the country. In this initiative the Public Catalogue Foundation worked with 26 public collections and the BBC to take paintings by the likes of Gainsborough, Lowry, Monet and Turner into primary and secondary schools.
Art Detective was launched in 2014. This free-to-use online network connects public art collections with members of the public and providers of specialist knowledge with the aim of improving our knowledge about art in the national collection.
In early 2015, the Art UK Collections Partnership was formed with 200 Founder Partners backing the creation of a shared digital platform for UK public art collections by committing to pay an annual subscription.
In late 2015, the Permissions Portal went live. The Permissions Portal is a secure interface that allows collections and artists to choose how images are licensed, reproduced and shared on Art UK.
2016 and beyond
In February 2016, following almost two years of preparation, Art UK was launched as the successor to Your Paintings. Whilst the BBC’s role in the project changed, it remained the charity's lead partner in the initiative. Coinciding with the launch, ‘Art UK’ became the operating name for the charity. The ‘Public Catalogue Foundation’ remains the charity’s legal name.
Art UK was built with funding from Arts Council England, the Scottish Government and a private foundation. A Steering Panel comprising representatives from national and regional museums, the BBC, Arts Council England and Visit England played a key role in guiding the Art UK team on the creation of the Art UK platform.
In the autumn of 2016, Art UK expanded the project to include already digitised watercolours, drawings and prints uploaded by collections through a specially developed Collections Portal. This Portal also allows collections to update their records on Art UK.
In November 2016, the Art UK Shop was launched. Seven collections are helping us to pilot the project, by allowing us to offer print on demand and licensing of their artworks. The pilot phase of the shop will run until February 2017. From March, we will offer all partner collections the opportunity to be involved. We will also offer collections the opportunity to sell merchandise through what will effectively be an online marketplace for the UK’s Museums and Galleries. The Shop has been built with ACE funding, and with the support of a private foundation.
Art UK’s next major digitisation programme will be the nation’s sculpture collection of the last 1,000 years. This will proceed subject to a successful Round Two application to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the charity raising the necessary match funding.