It could be described as the biggest touring art show in the world: the freaks and eccentics photographed by Diane Arbus will be taken to Cardiff, Wolverhampton and Walsall will get a taste of Andy Warhol, Bill Viola's experimental videos will be unveiled in Orkney, and what audiences in Teeside will make of Gerhard Richter's 'abstract minimalism' is anyone's guess.
The travelling exhibition, announced at Tate Modern yesterday, (thurs) will include many of the 725 cutting-edge artworks given by the art dealer and philanthropist, Anthony D'Offay, to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland last year, on proviso that his extraordinary collection be displayed across the nation rather than hidden away in the vaults of the two galleries and occasionally wheeled out for an urbane London audience.
Thoughout 2009, 18 museums and galleries will be showing over 30 artists in the tour, which is called "Artist Rooms". This is the first time a national collection has been "shared" and shown simultaneously in this way, and nine million viewers are expected to turn out over the course of the year.
The first leg of the tour, to begin in March ('09) will include two thirds of the entire collection given by D'Offay including works by Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Gilbert & George, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Sol LeWitt, Ron Mueck, Bruce Nauman as well as a host of other artists whose contemporary creations have, in some cases, never been seen outside the biggest galleries and museums in London.
Nicholas Serota, director of Tate galleries, said his ambition was to see the D'Offay collection travel indefinitely around galleries in the UK and that he hoped to attract corporate sponsorship to enable this "permanent" tour.
"It will be dramatic and transform the way contemporary art can be seen. It's an extraordinary exercise and unprecedented in the world that a collection that has come into national ownership be seen across the country," he said.
D'Offay said he was "delighted" that the works would rove in ths way while John Leighton, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, said he would one day like to see these works displayed in non-arts venues too, in order to broaden audiences for contemporary art.
The Art Fund, an arts charity, has pledged a donation of £250,000 a year for the next three years to enable the tour to take place.
Damien Hirst, Vija Celmins and Alex Katz are among artists whose work will be shown in some inaugural displays at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art with highlights including Hirst's Away from the Flock 1994, which is an early example of his animals in formaldehyde, and Celmins' images of seas and deserts. Warhol's posters and paintings will travel to Wolverhampton including his Skulls series as well as iconic images of Muhammad Ali and Jacqueline Kennedy, while the neon work and video work of American artist, Bruce Nauman, will be offered up to a Glaswegian audience at Tramway Gallery.
The work of Sol LeWitt, considered by many a pioneer of conceptual art and minimalism, will go to Liverpool, and the anti-establishment ideas in Joseph Beuys sculptures, drawings and photographs will go to Bexhill on Sea. All the shows except for one in Tate St Ives will be free of charge for the public.
D'Offay, 68, one of the most powerful figures in the world of elite art dealers, became the most significant art philanthropist in modern British history when he donated virtually all his collection - including personal gifts made to him by Warhol and Beuys - worth £125m in a charitable gesture that inspired praise from the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The collection was sold at the cost price of £26.5m, amounting to just one fifth of its market value, £20m of which was paid by the governments in Edinburgh and London.