If you happen to be on a road trip this August, driving down a highway through the middle of nowhere in North Dakota or New Mexico, you may suddenly see a giant modern painting at the side of the road in between fast food ads. In suburban malls, classic photographs will replace posters advertising movies or mobile phones. In cities, art will sprawled across buses and subway posters. All around the country, 50,000 billboards that normally try to sell something will be transformed into art.
Art Everywhere US is the American version of a project that began last summer in the U.K., where 22,000 billboards and poster sites were covered with British art. The event this year will be the largest outdoor art show that has ever happened.
"It’s putting out art there for the public to see in an unusual way—not necessarily to make people want to come to museums, but to let them see something that might be inspiring or beautiful or thought-provoking," says Miranda Carroll, the director of communications for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Something they wouldn’t normally see on an advertising billboard."
Five museums—the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, LACMA, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art—each put forth 20 works of art to include in the show, all by American artists. Online voting will narrow that list down to 50 pieces to be plastered across the country.
It’s a real-life version of a conceptual project from French artist Etienne Lavie, who imagined replacing the ads in Paris with classical paintings.
Will people who are used to tuning out ads start to pay attention? While it’s possible that someone in the city might assume that a poster is an ad for a museum show, an abstract painting by the side of the open road is likely to stand out.
"I think part of the idea behind the whole project is to put art in unexpected places and encourage those double-takes," says Jeff Levine, the Whitney Museum's chief communications officer.
"I have this image of driving on Route 66 in a convertible and seeing a Georgia O’Keefe billboard," he adds. "I think for some of these artists whose work is actually geographically specific, some of the possibilities are really incredible."
For some passing by, it might be the first work of art they've noticed in a while—the number of Americans going to art museums or galleries is shrinking every year. In the most recent survey, the National Endowment for the Arts found that only about 21% of American adults had been to either in the last year.
On the other hand, 80% have been to a fast food restaurant in the last week. If a few billboards help tip the balance, however slightly, that can't be a bad thing.