The Story of the British Council, Visual Arts, and a Changing World
Does the meaning of a work of art change as it crosses a border from one place to another? Can art exhibitions play a role in the relations between different nations? How does a national collection of art reflect a country’s sense of itself, and even shape its standing in the world?
Over nine decades, the British Council has sent British art abroad in ambitious acts of cultural dialogue with more than one hundred countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Its acclaimed exhibitions are seen by millions of people worldwide. These touring shows not only bring the work of leading artists to audiences in every continent, they also demonstrate art’s variety and endless capacity for reinterpretation, and the myriad ways that art exhibitions can serve international relations, as forms of promotion and partnership, and as sites of debate and dissent.
Along the way, the British Council has amassed a unique and distinctive national collection of art, comprising almost nine thousand pieces by the most significant artistic talents of the day. These works rarely rest, often going out on the road as soon as they enter the collection, sometimes travelling for years on end. As they move around the globe, they witness the changing circumstances of world history and, in their own way, leave a mark upon them.
There are many tales to be told during this long and rich period, with extraordinary art, fascinating personalities, and complex geopolitics. Through accounts of landmark exhibitions, this book explores intersections of art and national identity; issues of autonomy and authority, persuasion and protest; and shifting trends in art and curatorial practice across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It tells the ongoing story of the British Council’s visual arts programme and the British Council Collection, to examine what art can achieve as it moves around an ever-changing world.
Dr Annebella Pollen is Professor of Visual and Material Culture at the University of Brighton, where she researches undervalued archives and untold stories in art and design history. Her previous books include Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life (2015), The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (2015), Nudism
in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain (2021), and More Than a Snapshot: A Visual History of Photo Wallets (2023).