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What’s It Going to Take to Advance Contemporary Mosaic?

At any gathering of contemporary mosaic artists, the question of “What’s it going to take to advance the art form/genre/medium?” is likely to arise. One of two positions is usually taken: Change the Status Quo or Work Within the Status Quo – the Status Quo being the current hierarchy of the Greater Art World.

Last October, during the British Association of Modern Mosaic’s annual Forum at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the question arose briefly during the organization’s General Meeting. The conversation, which focused on the Tate Modern’s continued refusal to show mosaic, was continued in the article below which appeared in the organization’s newsletter “Grout.” We thank BAMM for the opportunity to present these thoughtful “head-to-head” arguments from Paul Bentley, BAMM’s Chairman 1999-2005 and the current Chairman, Gary Drostle.

What do you think it will take advance contemporary mosaic? We look forward to your thoughtful and constructive Comments.

Dugald MacInnes "Orogeny" 100x100 cm Scottish slate

Paul Bentley:  “Modern Mosaic = Modern Art” 

No one could doubt the success of the new venue for BAMM’s Annual General Meeting and Forum; the Victoria & Albert Museum is an impressive, world-famous building, and the Sackler lecture room featured the latest equipment and comfortable raked seating. Doubtless this explained why attendance in 2012 at least doubled that of previous years.

However, there was an elephant in the room and I took the liberty of pointing this out during our General Meeting.

Sir Nicolas Serota, the Director of Tate Modern, has always banned modern mosaics while allowing virtually anything else – bricks, beans, medicine cabinets, etc. A recent letter from his assistant confirmed the policy: “Sir Nicholas has asked me to reply on his behalf to confirm that we do not usually display contemporary mosaic at Tate. You are correct that we consider it a medium better suited to exhibitions at the V&A, which is the national museum of art and design.”

It seems they are aware that in 1970 the Tate did once lower its guard and let a modern mosaic slip in. It was Palpable Object by Paul Neagu.

Paul Neagu "Palpable Object Mosaic" 1970 Photo via

And, of course, in 1923 Boris Anrep was allowed to install his floor mosaic Proverbs of Hell in Gallery 2 of what is now Tate Britain.

Boris Anrep "Proverbs of Hell" 1924 Photo via

But the fact is today contemporary mosaic is not allowed in Tate Modern and will not be as long as Serota is running the place.

I maintain that by having its Meeting and Forum at the V&A Museum BAMM has given the impression that it agrees with Serota; that modern mosaic is best suited to the national museum of art and design.

It’s all very well mosaicists say, “We don’t need Tate Modern; all that matters is that we create the best mosaics we can, that we are true to our own artistic goals.”  However one of BAMM’s stated aims is “to raise public awareness of modern mosaic art”. Tate Modern is Britain’s principal gallery of modern art; it has some 5 million visitors a year who end their visits thinking that they have seen a representative selection of modern art – even though there isn’t a square inch of modern mosaic in the building.  I find that outrageous.

Elaine M. Goodwin "Touching Paradise" 2010 66x120 cm. Gold smalti. Photo K. Bailey

What’s to be done? I believe that we should publicize Serota’s continued refusal to exhibit contemporary mosaic. This could be done by using the media to our advantage; arranging for a television programme about the issue, using Twitter and Facebook to spread news of the Tate’s continuing stance. We might arrange for an exhibition of British mosaicists that would be so exceptional it would demand media coverage, and ask for Serota’s comments – perhaps even invite celebrity artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst to contribute mosaics of their own.

Jane Muir "For and Against" Photo via

I don’t think BAMM would be doing its duty if we just gave up and accepted that one of the world’s greatest galleries of modern art will never show works created using one of the world’s greatest artistic media.

Paul Bentley
BAMM Chairman 1999 – 2005

Robert Field "Mazeolithic Skeleton" 2001 61x61 cm Unglazed ceramic.

Gary Drostle:  “Playing The System”

“Why are there no mosaics in Tate Modern?”

I have heard this question and the related question of “is mosaic art or craft?” consistently since I first joined BAMM many years ago.  I can understand people’s frustration at this seemingly impenetrable wall facing mosaic art.  However, I believe that these two questions are fundamentally flawed and derive from a misunderstanding of the contemporary art world as it is currently structured in the West.

The Tate Modern is at the top of a highly stratified art market and to understand why there are currently no mosaics in the collection we need to understand how that market works.  Note that I say “currently” because I believe it is quite possible that one day there may be mosaic in the Tate.  In fact, I think that this breakthrough is more possible now than ever before.

The contemporary art market has a structure.  It begins with small, independent galleries and moves up through levels of more established galleries – each level attracting a wealthier client base until we reach the likes of Saatchi and Waddington Custot. Each of these layers is supported by, and to a great extent determined by, contemporary art critics and curators.

Emma Biggs "Tide" 2008 40x40 cm Ceramic found in the Thames

The primary influence on this system is the market for art – it really is all about what sells.  Today, what sells is largely determined by the curators and critics who act as consultants to a clientele of pension funds, corporate collections and newly wealthy speculators.  Unlike the clients of the past – individuals who built highly personal collections based on their own tastes and appreciation of art – the majority of today’s clients are looking to make acquisitions that will gain value in time – thus their reliance upon the curators and critics.

The important factor to remember here again is that the Tate Modern is just the tip of this art market “iceberg”; its collection has been honed by the progression of works through the gallery/critic filter.

Art movements in the past have been about media or manifestos or specific ways of interpreting the world.  Today, in this curator- determined market, it is all about The Artist.  The market sells The Artist and his/her vision, thought, and exploration of concepts.  Here we come up against the first barrier to mosaics in the Tate.  Those influential curators and critics who drive the art market system will never choose a Medium – they will choose Artists.

Tony Cragg "Menschenmenge" (Crowd) 1986 64 ft. Found plastic objects. Photo via

When I mentioned earlier that I believe there is a greater opportunity to see a mosaic in the Tate now than ever before, I was referring, in part, to a current “hot trend” in the art market. Many highly collected artists like Tony Cragg, El Anatsui and Chuck Close are creating work by massing or sticking multiple objects to surfaces or creating their own visual tesserae using traditional materials. While one may question whether these works are mosaics or not, mosaic artists should learn from the success of these artists that the concept must take priority over the medium.

Chuck Close "Emma" 2002 43x35 in. Woodcut.

If we are to see a mosaic in the Tate, individual mosaic artists must engage with the art market – starting with the galleries at the very bottom of the system – presenting themselves primarily as Artists – and emphasizing their ideas and their exploration of those ideas, not the medium they work in. Mosaic artists should create a good, solid body of work that demonstrates their artistic process – one that might even include work in other media required to explore their ideas and visions.  Mosaic artists have a lot to learn from those artists who are already in the Tate and others whose work connects with mosaic in some way who are making their way forward in the gallery system.

Cleo Mussi "Monoculture Perfection 4" 2009 Ceramic. From the installation "Pharma's Market"

So, do not ask me why there are no mosaics in the Tate Modern for the question is the wrong one. There shouldn’t be mosaics in the Tate if the medium alone is the criterion for their presence.  Ask me instead why Dugald MacInnes or Cleo Mussi  aren’t in the Tate for these are artists who have compelling, interesting things to say and they do so eloquently.

Gary Drostle
BAMM Chairman


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  1. Debora Aldo

    Marcello, Thanks for the clarification and for using those two examples of contemporary art that happen to also be mosaic. In Madonna the medium was used to great effect – a statement that is relevance both to historical and current events. The digital/pixelation/tesselation as well as the rich context of this artists background make this work noteworthy. As determined by Saatchi, it’s fine art. Why? I assume partly based on subject matter, partly on execution, partly subjective and possibly, as Gary mentioned because of sale-ability. When someone figures out that formula, it would be worth bottling.

    Because mosaic has an extensive history of being primarily decorative, convincing curators that we are serious about making art, not surface coverings leaves us back at making good work on a multitude of levels, not mosaics. As to public art and architectural art, it is still in the traditional vein a different conversation.

    • Marcelo de Melo

      The answer is simple: context. With or without Saatchi I would say it is fine art. Saatchi dictates trends. However, his collection is based on his taste and not necessarily “universallity”. Contemporary art is far more interesting and richer than what Saatchi shows.

  2. Emma Biggs

    I think what Gary says is accurate, and what Marcelo says is accurate too.

    Mosaic is not excluded as a medium from contemporary art, there are numerous artists post Warhol who have used it — artists who are included in the Tate collections. It is merely a matter of making effective, communicative work that engages with issues considered to be important to the contemporary art world. This means knowing what those issues are, which requires effort in itself.. The contemporary art world is a system, and many mosaic artists are befuddled by that — it is as if they are cross about not being allowed to sell fish at a fruit and vegetable market.

    On the other hand, anger is a useful creative tool, and a powerful motivation. I don’t believe a word of it when the Duke de Dreadful asks a rhetorical question about not wanting her work to be seen in Tate Modern, but I recognise and applaud the attitudinous stance — good work needs emotional energy as well as putting in the hours.

    • Emma Biggs

      This is an addendum. I muddled the Duke up with the Baroness. Apologies for the cross gender confusion. What is it that makes some English people so interested in titles?

  3. Lisa Houck

    For many years I have been a part of similar discussions among printmakers and ceramic artists about the hierarchies that exist in the art market and the art world. Some artistic disciplines which exist on the line between traditional craft and fine art get put into categories by curators, such as “decorative arts”. As someone who works in a variety of media, I think it is important to be true to yourself and do the work that is meaningful to you. As to how it is received by the critics and curators and the wider world, that is a different matter. I do not lack ambition, but I do not want to devote my energies to trying to reform the art market. As an artist who works in mosaics I have some opportunities for public art commissions that might not be available to the artists currently showing at the Tate. I try to walk through the doors that open for me as an artist.

  4. Paul Bentley

    Gary Drostle says “Why are there no mosaics in Tate Modern?” is the wrong question, because “the system will never choose a medium, it chooses artists”. Mosaic artists should therefore concentrate on getting themselves to the top of the gallery system. But Serota’s assistant at the Tate wrote to me of mosaic that “we consider it a medium better suited to exhibitions at the V&A”. So it is the medium of mosaic they have banned, and Gary’s argument collapses.

    • Emma Biggs

      Not at all Paul. I think if you wrote to them on behalf of the Needleworker’s Guild of Great Britain, pleading for greater representation, they would say the same thing. It wouldn’t stop them showing work by Louise Bourgeois, or Tracey Emin.

      • Paul Bentley

        Tate Modern has no business banning ANY medium – mosaic, needlework, whatever – and I’m staggered at how many people appear incapable of grasping that simple fact.

        • Marcelo de Melo

          We grasp it 😉

    • Marcelo de Melo

      Paul, it is well known in the UK this divide in ‘collecting policies’ from these institutions. It surprises me your are still at it. These are truly Byzantine discussions.

  5. Duke de Dreadful

    I’m writing this whilst a new dreadful work is setting. Marcelo’s view is lucid, honest and from the heart. If however Serota has excluded ‘mosaic’ singularly because of his personal view of the medium as a non-expressive art form then it that ill-informed and closed view that Paul is targeting.
    Me…. I’m working hard at new even more dreadful expressions of niceness.

  6. jim bachor

    spot on article – now let’s get to work…

  7. Francesca

    Artists have always – since recorded history – been at the edge..the fringe of society. If you know that to be true, then consider that mosaic artists are at the fringe of art.

  8. Marcelo de Melo

    Context is crucial! Mosaic art has been represented in the contemporary art scene. However, not the artworks the mosaic association validate. I strongly believe that this debate is misplaced and we are all asking the wrong questions. This is centered mostly on ego rather than relevance of works in a wider context.

    • Nancie

      Marcelo, I would very much like to get a better understanding of what you are saying, here. What are the questions you think we should be asking? What do you mean by context? And how do you see mosaic art being represented now within the contemporary art scene?

      • Marcelo de Melo

        Nancie, just 2 great examples of mosaic works in the contemporary art scene:

        1) Brothers, 2010 by Adrian Paci [Albania] at Bloomberg Space London. He uses mosaics to address displacement, the monumentalisation of the banal and nostalgia. He is not just using mosaics for the sake of making mosaics. The context of his ouvre is crucial. Who he is. Where he lives. What he does. How he got there [Italy]. His relevance to the wider artistic context. Not the smalti, not the stones he uses but why he uses it and how the material favours his narratives relating to the now [2010/Albania/Italy/London]. He is relevant!

        2) Madonna, 2002 by Mat Collishaw at Saatchi Gallery. “Madonna has a historically epic quality. Madonna’s timeless face is cropped from a photograph of an Indian woman taken after her village was destroyed in a flood. These tragic images seem all too contemporary with their digitised high-gloss finish [vitreous glass]. However, the surface is not a photograph, rather it is made up of tiny, cold tiles. Mat Collishaw uses mosaic to immortalise his subjects the same way images of saints and martyrs were rendered in early churches, but by doing so he replicates the process of image transmission over the internet.” [adapted from his profile at Saatchi]. Mat is connecting pixels and materials, making references to the historicity of mosaics. He is not producing mosaics for the sake of mosaics. He is truly connecting to the now. Not just the tiny tiles, not just about photography. It is about all this things connected together and the processes of now [industrial tiles, image transmission, pixelation and more]. He is using mosaics in a contemporary manner. He is relevant!

        The questions mosaic artist should be asking are related to their practice. Is my work pushing any boudaries? Which are these “boundaries”? Is my work questioning the technique I use? Can my technique truly contribute to my narrative? Can it be done better by other means? Is my work dealing/connecting with issues of today? Is my work making important references [history/formality,etc]? Do I understand enough the formal elements of mosaics in order to fully deploy them to empower my narratives?

        I say: Keep making, keep thinking but do not ilude yourself thinking you are great, important or relevant. Make good work. Exhibit good work and be honest with yourself. Built your own context and relevance by opening your mind and trying to understand what is out there and what makes things kick. If the work is actually good, it will find a well deserved place/position. Contemporay art is pluralist, so mosaics will eventually find its way big time into “important” galleries. We cannot force it. Only time will tell. Sorry but the Tate debate is misplaced.

        • Nancie

          Thank you for introducing me to these two artists, Marcelo. Their work is fascinating and, I think, falls into line with the points that Gary Drostle makes in his portion of this article. The work is artful – there are strong, compelling concepts and visions at work here. Equally important–and Gary’s second theme–is that these artists have done the hard blocking and tackling that it takes to become a player in the art world.

          I very much like the questions that you propose for mosaic artists to ask themselves. I am especially fond of “Can my technique truly contribute to my narrative?” And I think your advice to “keep making” is spot on. I am truly grateful for your thoughtful and constructive contribution to the conversation.

          I have a huge amount of respect for Paul Bentley. He was one of the founding members of BAMM, currently administers, has done extensive historical mosaic research and writing, and has been a tireless warrior for the medium. I am very much a fan. On this topic, however, we do not agree and I am sure he remembers me asserting “Make art, not mosaics!” from the podium at the V&A.

          You, Gary and I are on the same page. I think the medium will be advanced by exciting, relevant work made by individual artists who have engaged with the current art hierarchy. Then again, who knows what a man like Paul Bentley can accomplish?

          • Marcelo de Melo

            Nancie, as I mentioned before, you are doing a great job by sharing the issues online, etc. Fantastic! I am not disrespecting Paul Bentley’s work. I only think it is misplaced and it has a lack of undestanding for ‘context’ both for mosaic practice and contemporary art. He is trying hard and it is good. There will always be criticism. Awareness of the issues is crucial to avoid embarrassment. Mosaicists have to up their game if they want to compete equaly. There are plenty of mosaicist out there living in a fairy tale. Lets hope they wake up on day and start building some relevance in their work. Gary’s part is not as naive as Paul’s. And, thanks again for being pluralist. All voices are equaly important and mosaic people tend to be as prejudiced to their own kind as their contemporary art counterparts.
            Yes, Jim, let’s get to work!

  9. Luis Laso Casas

    I could not agree more with Gary’s account and the fact that mosaic as media should be secondary to the artistic expression of ideas, concepts and our vision of the world and the reality we are part of.

  10. Lilian Broca

    Gary, congratulations on an excellent article. The last paragraph sums it all up and I heartily concur!!!! Bravo!

    • Karen Dimit

      Hear, hear! Which is why SAMA did a disservice to promoting the possibility that some mosaic art can be fine art by not including the artists’ statements. No stories behind the work, no help in getting under the superficial, technical, and dare I say, craft aspect of these works, into the “compelling stories”, and “explorations of concepts” that do underlie some of these works. A SAMA member mentioned to me that she realized the depth of this error of omission when she heard someone talk about the complex thought process and symbolism behind Gary’s award-winning piece. What a magnificent realization of intent and execution!

  11. Duke de Dreadful

    Would you really want your work shown alongside some of the stuff shown at Tat Modern?

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