Washington crossing the Eisenhower? “Nighthawks” at the bus stop? Come August, American art will be meeting the public in public, with such possible combinations as Grant Wood's “American Gothic” on a subway poster, a Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass window on a bus stop's digital screen, and Andy Warhol's “Campbell's Soup Can,” a painting that critiques commercial culture, turned into a roadside billboard.
The Art Everywhere project, featuring reproductions of well-known and/or important American works from the Art Institute of Chicago and four other major United States museums, will decorate streetscapes for four weeks with more than 50 works at more than 50,000 advertising locations.
“We're hoping this puts American art on the minds of every single American on their way to school or work and becomes part of the daily conversation,” said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art and the project's spokesman. “This is a jubilant celebration of American creativity and generous on the part of the out-of-home advertising industry to turn over millions of dollars in space and creativity for the purpose.”
Said Douglas Druick, director of the Art Institute, “We and everyone who's involved in this project want to bring more people to be more interested in the visual arts and to bring in new audiences that have not habitually visited museums. It's a form of evangelism.”
In other words, if you can't bring the people to the galleries — only 14 percent of the public goes to museums, Anderson said — then bring the galleries to the people.
To get the conversation started, the public is invited to vote, for one month beginning Monday, for its favorite works from a list of 100 from the collections of Dallas, Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The winning 50 or so images at arteverywhereus.org will be announced June 20 and will go on display for four weeks starting Aug. 4, although Anderson said this is not, strictly speaking, a democracy.
“Like ‘American Idol' we don't have an audited vote,” he said, noting that the institutions will vet the final selections to “make sure it's a representative list” reflecting a cross-section of styles, ethnicity, gender and era.
Inspired by a project of the same name last year in the United Kingdom, Art Everywhere began not with the museums but with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The trade group for billboards and other out-of-home ads noted the success of the British project over two weeks last August and wondered if it could be done here, thinking that “focusing a lot of our public-service effort around the campaign would be spectacular,” said Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Freitas.
The group is hoping to have “many more” than 50,000 display spaces and will do its best to make sure the reproductions are of the highest quality, Freitas said.
Said Ken Klein, executive vice president of governmental affairs for the association, “One of our hopes is that when the posters come down a legacy will be art education. That fits a real public need at this time.”
After the ad group noted the British success, consultations with a rights expert and a curator in Denver led the group to Anderson, and he recruited peer institutions with strong American collections to take part.
The museums winnowed their lists of American art candidates to 20 each, bearing in mind that paintings in this context would work better than sculpture, for instance, and that it's probably not worth including your museum's Grant Wood when it's so very clear which is the most popular.
Scrolling through the list at the project's website is an education in itself. As for any possible objections to ranking works of art, Druick noted that “a choice has to be made in everything we do. These will be ranked in a sort of participatory, crowdsourcing way” — and in a way that's only relevant within the context of the project.
The British Art Everywhere released the public's top ten list, with John William Waterhouse's “The Lady of Shalott,” inspired by a Tennyson poem of the same name, “winning.”
Here, Anderson is thus far pledging to release only the overall No. 1, and he says there has been much “handicapping the winner” already.
Certainly, “Nighthawks” and “American Gothic,” stars of the Art Institute's collection, would be in the conversation. The National Gallery submitted a highly recognizable Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
But this is, do not forget, America. And this is the Internet age.
Said Anderson, in talking about what might win the popular vote: “I thought it was very adroit of the National Gallery to put in a sort of naive image of cats.”