The Government Art Collection (GAC): A passport to cultural diplomacy

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The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. Edwin Foley, 1910-11. “The “king’s room,” Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. The property of Sir Henry Paston Bedinfield. With its furniture and accessories re-arranged to show its court cupboard, “thrown” chair, linenfold panelling, bedstead, and other appointments.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-6d65-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The 14,000 works of art in the Government Art Collection (GAC) are silent ambassadors, helping to enhance the nation’s image in the eyes of the beholder. Jenny Kingsley enjoyed a public tour of the Collection.

“The GAC is an unsung and too little known national asset…I don’t miss anything really about public office, certainly not the official cars or the Residences or the titles (been there, done that, got the T shirt). But I do rather miss the chance to raid the contents of the GAC. Now that was a rare privilege, and I am grateful for it and to those who over the years have made the GAC possible; the curators, the artists, and not, of course, forgetting the dear tax payers. The ultimate public private partnership has created something really rather special.”

Recollection of The Rt Hon the Lord Boateng, 2017, formerly the High Commissioner to South Africa, 2005 – 2009.

The Government Art Collection (GAC) is a curious British artistic phenomenon. It does not live in a museum or gallery. Its home, just off the congested, far from picturesque, Tottenham Court Road, is rather unassuming: possibly a smartened up warehouse. The appearance and location, though, are misleading. They belie the great role that the GAC plays in promoting diplomacy, as its stock in trade helps to highlight British art, culture and history, enhance the nation’s global image.

Moreover, those who are not being ‘courted’ can share its treasures. Free public tours take place regularly. I recently attended one organised by the UK Friends of NMWA (National Museum of Women in the Arts). We learned about the history and purpose of the GAC; and we visited the conservation and restoration workshop and the storage areas, where we were encouraged to pull out the sliding panels holding pictures.

The GAC provides artwork for government buildings, in more than 420 locations all over the world. The artwork is displayed in the embassies, high commissions, consulates, official residences and ministerial offices situated in capitals and regional areas, in the public areas, including corridors and entrance halls, not private bedrooms! (The Houses of Parliament operate a separate art collection). Usually two-thirds of the stock is out on loan. The Collection encompasses some 14,000 artworks: paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, photographs, textiles, videos, mixed media and historic government silver. The current budget is £200,000.

With artwork dating from the 16th century to the present, the GAC is not just a selection of the famous and the great by the famous and the great. It’s an eclectic range – quirky, definitely not thematic or ‘movement’ orientated. The artists whose work is held must be British or have strong British connections. Some work is included because of its subject matter, such as Andy Warhol’s screenprints of the Queen. The eighteenth century artist Peter Tillemans was born in Antwerp, but he settled in Britain, so his engravings of Greenwich and oil painting of Richmond, Surrey, are included in the Collection. Indeed, Tillemans is considered a founder of the English school of sporting painting. The GAC also lends artwork to public exhibitions, if the security and environmental conditions are adequate. One such example is a painting from the period when Joan Eardley was living in a tenement in Glasgow, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for the exhibition of Eardley’s work, A Sense of Place.

Artwork is purchased from auction houses, commercial galleries, dealers and artists, with the approval of the Advisory Committee, the members of which are not paid. Five are ex officio, for example Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, and Penny Johnson, Director of the GAC. ‘Independent’ Advisory Committee members include the artist and Director of the Slade School of Fine Art Susan Collins. The GAC has fifteen members of staff.

The Collection was started officially in 1898, when the Office, later Ministry, of Works assumed responsibility for the art on display in government buildings at home, and the Treasury allocated funding for purchasing more artwork. In 1935, funding increased in order to purchase work for buildings abroad, and the Overseas Picture Committee was established. It included the directors of the National Gallery, Tate and National Portrait Gallery. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Sir John Simon, warned against buying modern art as its display might lead to “undesirable controversy”. (Until this time ambassadors were expected to ‘furnish’ their own residences.)

After the Second World War, it was agreed that some modern art should be purchased. One such initiative took place in in 1949 when the Ministry of Works commissioned five paintings by John Piper for the new British embassy in Rio. Donations, bequests and subscription funds continued to enable the collection to expand. In the 1960s, there was a determined effort to acquire contemporary prints by living artists. Number 10 Downing Street was considered a prime location for exhibiting these works; they reflected a modern image of Britain. Harold Wilson welcomed the ‘new’. In 1979, artists were commissioned to create site-specific work for embassies; for instance, Ian Hamilton Finlay was asked to make a sundial for the ambassador’s residential garden in Bonn. In 1981, when Margaret Thatcher arrived at No 10, she graced its walls with historic landscapes and portraits; and the collection was officially titled as the Government Art Collection. Her successor, John Major, requested modern art; New Labour followed Major’s lead. In 1997, the GAC came under the auspices of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

In 2001, the GAC website was launched. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Whitechapel Gallery presented an innovative series of displays about the GAC. (The Director, Iwona Blazwick, is a member of the Advisory Committee of the GAC.) One exhibition featured a selection of over 70 works, in a kaleidoscope of colours, chosen from the GAC by the artist Cornelia Parker. The exhibition was titled after the phrase used to remember the colours of the rainbow: “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”. Martin Creed’s neon sculpture Things in yellow certainly fit the bill. For another exhibition, the historian and broadcaster Simon Schama selected artwork from the GAC expressing the idea of travel, and places where the British have had a presence. One of Schama’s choices was Howard Hodgkin’s Mud on the Nile.

In a book about the GAC, Art, Power and Diplomacy, Government Art Collection, The Untold Story, published in 2011, Johnson explains “that we are at our busiest after the election of a new government…Works of art can signify the arrival of a new incumbent much more readily than other changes that ministers may want to introduce. Ministers usually choose their works by visiting the GAC, where we will have pre-selected a number of works from the Collection… based on our knowledge of the Collection, the architecture and scale of the minister’s office and what might be appropriate to reflect their portfolio of work…Interpretive material is also provided for locations, so that all recipients are knowledgeable about the works of art and can pass this information on to their visitors.” Some of the more generic work, Johnson notes, might move around frequently, while works bought for a specific location move less often. One former diplomat informed me that artwork could not be re-positioned without permission from the GAC.

Understandably, one may not always warm to the artwork on display upon arrival at a new posting. There may be practical reasons why paintings are where they are. With a glint in his eye, one former diplomat told me about a few of his amusing experiences in light of these situations. He remembered asking for a “lovely Lowry, fresh out of No 10”.  But, alas, he was told that the air in the capital where he was serving was too dry to risk good pictures; he would have to make do with what he had inherited in the residence.  He also recalled  “some very valuable and splendidly mislabeled 18th century pictures in Ankara of an Ambassador’s visit to the Court of the Sultan in Istanbul. Recent research had suggested that the Ambassador and the painter were Dutch, but we had originally claimed the Ambassador as British and never altered the labels”. My friend confessed that in another posting, there was a “large and very gloomy Jacobean portrait of a lady dominating the main hall”. Having failed to persuade the GAC to replace it, he had “hung a Venetian carnival mask on a fishing line just in front of the face to cheer it up without touching or damaging the painting. It made a very good icebreaker as a result, and no harm was ever done”. Maybe we could use this man’s mischievous sense of humour in our troubled times?

For Lord Boateng, the works of art from the GAC can certainly be both icebreakers and peacemakers. He told me that when he was the High Commissioner to South Africa there was a “beautiful oil painting of the burial place of Cecil Rhodes delivered without a name tag (by an ever diplomatic curator) to our residence in Pretoria. It provided a welcome distraction to my Zimbabwean visitors during some tense negotiations. There were people at the table who were on opposite sides of a long running argument but despite the lack of attribution immediately recognized the place and appreciated the respect shown not to that old rogue but to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This represented not just my appreciation of the natural wonders of their country but the importance of Zimbabwe’s past and present to both the UK and South Africa. The picture said that far more eloquently than any words of mine”.

Many people ask why should taxpayers’ money be used to buy art? Paul Boateng’s words reveal how pictures can justify their space on the walls. If an image sparks good will among nations, those with whom we trade and make peace, the money should earn us interest in more ways than one. If you make me smile, I’m more likely to buy your goods.

Jenny Kingsley (© Jenny Kingsley)

Women artists and the GAC

The tour I attended was organised by the charity UK Friends of NMWA (I am a committee member), which highlights the work of historic and contemporary women artists. Understandably we were sensitive about there being far fewer women artists whose work features in the GAC, than male artists whose work is part of the GAC. (We had the idea that there were 540 women artists represented.) However, this situation is changing rapidly. Indeed, one of the independent advisors, Iwona Blazwick, confirms that “there is a commitment to acquiring the best art being created by women today; and slowly but surely the Collection will come to be truly representative”.

Indeed, Nicky Hodge, as the GAC Curator, Information and Research, Modern and Contemporary, commented to me that the disparity is something the GAC has actively chosen to address. “While artists are chosen on merit rather than on the basis of their gender, we see this policy of promoting women artists as an across the board, holistic approach to equality in the arts generally, looking not only at the number of women artists in the collection but women in the sector more broadly.”

Hodge shares the following statistics… “From 2000-2009, the GAC acquired a quarter as many works by women as by men. From 2010-2014, the GAC acquired a third as many works by female artists as male artists. From  2014 to the present, the GAC acquired approximately equal numbers of works by female and male artists.” She emphasizes the work that the Information and Research curatorial team do with public engagement (talks, tours) and online to make women artists more visible (features on the website, Twitter, etc). The team also works with higher education institutions (such as London Metropolitan and Goldsmiths University) to develop educational projects that promote gender equality in the arts.

It would be hard to refute the fact that the GAC is right on track.

For more information about tours and the GAC, please visit:

http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/.

For information about the past exhibitions exploring the GAC at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, please visit:

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org.

These displays also travelled to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2012:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-20362949 (for reference) and the Ulster Museum in 2013 http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/visual-arts/video-government-art-collection-ulster-museum.

Enjoy reading Art, Power, Diplomacy, Government Art Collection, The Untold Story, Scala Publishers Ltd in association with the GAC, London 2011.

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