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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Modern Art Oxford

What is Modern Art Oxford?

Modern Art Oxford is a leading contemporary art space that was founded in the 1960s.


Painting at Modern Art Oxford

Sisi Burn, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Modern Art Oxford History

Avant-garde, cutting edge, forward-thinking – these are not necessarily the first adjectives to associate with the city of Oxford. But take a turn off St Aldate’s, down onto Pembroke Street, and you might find yourself reconsidering. A few steps away from the city’s historic centre, Modern Art Oxford breathes fresh life into Oxford’s cultural scene. It’s one of the country’s leading contemporary art spaces, at the forefront of what is happening in the art world right now.


This may seem surprising for a gallery outside a major capital city, but Modern Art Oxford takes being surprising very seriously. The gallery was founded in the 1960s by local architect Trevor Green and a small group of other modern art enthusiasts. Their primary aim was ‘the advancement of education of the general public in the modern visual arts’. It has maintained that open and inclusive ethos ever since. Fundamentally, the gallery promotes the idea that creativity in all its visual forms can be a progressive agent for social change. Art can open minds, challenge preconceptions and initiate healthy debate.


The gallery has always welcomed the global art community into its halls and onto its walls. In 1982, it staged a series of exhibitions dedicated to contemporary Indian art. Entitled India: Myth and Reality, these sought to explore and expose aspects of Indian culture that had gone underappreciated by the British art establishment. A decade later, in 1993, Modern Art Oxford curated a trailblazing exhibition entitled New Art from China. This marked the first time contemporary Chinese art was shown in the UK.


The entrance to Modern Art Oxford

Christian Michelides, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The gallery also has a reputation for staging important and influential solo shows, cementing artists’ status as seminal figures in contemporary art. These include the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose daring black-and-white photography with its focus on the naked human body made for an exciting exhibition that was considered risqué in the 1980s.


In 2002, the gallery worked with British artist Tracey Emin to curate her first major exhibition in Britain in five years, drawing visitors from all over the world. It featured the artist’s now iconic neon wall hangings, drawings, etchings and film works. The centrepiece was her famous work My Bed, for which she was nominated for the Turner Prize (the most prestigious prize in British contemporary art).


Perhaps the most shocking show that the gallery ever hosted took place in 2003. With an exhibition entitled The Rape of Creativity, Modern Art Oxford introduced the world to the iconoclast brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman. To prepare visitors for the renegade content, with a heavy dose of irony the Chapmans wrote a leaflet to accompany the show featuring the following health warning: ‘The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition.’


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