Diversity United is a travelling exhibition featuring work by 100 living artists from 34 countries – seeing this monument to liberal values moved our writer to tears

When it comes to outsized projects with geopolitical undertones, Walter Smerling has form. Between 2015 and 2017, the chairman of the Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur (Foundation for Art and Culture) in Bonn and a German art-world statesman of sorts organised the largest ever exhibitions of Chinese art in Germany and German art in China. And when tensions between western Europe and Russia started rising around the same time, he envisaged a continent-spanning exhibition: “A dialogue,” as he puts it, “about what unites people in Europe. About democracy, about solidarity, about personal and political freedom.”

The result is Diversity United, a traveling group exhibition comprising over 150 artworks by around 100 living artists, from 34 countries, chosen by 10 curators. It is not, mercifully, about Brexit, but it does aim to highlight “the importance of a united Europe during times of political uncertainty”. Smerling says he is on a mission to promote basic liberal values. “How do we work together?” he wanted the show to ask. “What do respect, dignity and freedom mean?”

In 2018, he convened curators from museums and galleries across the continent and together they whittled down a longlist of 300-plus living artists to about 90. And for something funded almost entirely by the private sector, it is an impressive muster. All the textbook Europe-related names feature: from octogenarian luminaries Georg Baselitz, Paula Rego and Sheila Hicks to Sonia Boyce (who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022), and Yan Pei-Ming (one of the few contemporary artists whose work sits in the Louvre, following his own Venice appearance in the early 2000s). Moscow-based painter Ekaterina Muromtseva is the youngest, born in 1990.

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