Celebrating The Great British Art Debate

Dec 20 2012

In our latest blog, Museums Sheffield's Exhibition Curator, Rowena Hamilton celebrates The Great British Art Debate, which came to a close in December. An ambitious partnership, the project saw work from some of the UK's finest collections go on show in Sheffield.

Since 2008 Museums Sheffield has taken part in The Great British Art Debate, a major UK-wide project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund which sought to explore ideas of identity through national and regional art collections. A collaboration between Museums Sheffield, Tate, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, the project gave partner organisations the opportunity to show an ambitious series of exhibitions, each complemented by an events programme targeted at both schools and communities.

Sheffield kicked off its involvement in The Great British Art Debate with two ‘taster’ exhibitions at the Graves Gallery, A Picture of You? and A Picture of Us?, which took a broad look at how the country’s art collections reflected the identity of people of living in the UK in the 21st century. These were followed in 2010 by the first of the project’s major exhibitions, Watercolour in Britain; spearheaded by Tate and Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, this was a truly collaborative endeavour created by curators from all partner organisations and featuring work from each of their respective collections.

The second exhibition in the series, Restless Times: Art in Britain 1914 – 1945 was Museums Sheffield’s major contribution to The Great British Art Debate. Exploring a tumultuous but hugely creative period in British art, our curators researched and selected Modern British works from Sheffield’s collection, those of the project partners’ and from collections across the United Kingdom. Around 55,000 people visited the exhibition at the Millennium Gallery before it travelled on to Norwich, following which a selection of works, including those from Sheffield’s collection, were shown at Tate Britain.

In 2011 The Great British Art Debate continued at the Millennium Gallery with John Martin: Painting the Apocalypse. This blockbuster of an exhibition, curated by Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, wowed crowds in Newcastle, then Sheffield and London with Martin’s epic apocalyptic visions.

The last exhibition of the project to go on show in Sheffield, The Family in British Art provided a hugely popular conclusion to the series. Bringing together an eclectic selection of historical and contemporary work, the exhibition went on to become the Millennium Gallery’s most successful ever.

The reach of The Great British Art Debate has been vast. In Sheffield, thousands of students from 100 different schools and colleges across the city visited the exhibitions and took part in workshops, drama and film-making projects; some even contributed their time and ideas to help us create the exhibitions. Over 5000 people participated in the many debates, workshops, Art Days, talks, photography projects, competitions, art demos and more held alongside the exhibitions and also funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

The Great British Art Debate officially ended in December; we’re be sad to see it go as this funding has brought so much fantastic art, activity and resources to Sheffield. Major exhibition projects require a lot of time and money to produce, which is a big challenge at a time when funding for the arts is so strained.

However, The Great British Art Debate has left an inspiring legacy, not only through its exhibitions and activity, but in allowing us to develop new ways to collaborate, share collections and work together to make the best use of increasingly limited resources. We are already talking with partners and exploring different funding sources and models of working to reduce costs, so we can look to bring exhibitions of this scale and standard to Museums Sheffield venues again in the future.


Curators installing John Martin's large-scale triptych, including The Plains of Heaven (1851), The Last Judgement (1853) and The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3), at the Millennium Gallery in 2011.



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