Monday, 17 May 2010

Government Art Collection

Saturday evening, as part of the Museums at Night weekend, I walked up a nondescript alley off Tottenham Court Road into a dull-looking building, to find that it hides an impressively wide-ranging selection of artworks. This is the home of the Government Art Collection, currently a particularly topical place to visit.

The GAC is more of a library than a gallery: it doesn't have public display space of its own, but does lend works to embassies, government offices and buildings as well as making frequent loans to art exhibitions. About 70% of the collection is on display at any one time; the remaining 30% returns to this building for storage, research, conservation and shipment to its next location. New works are also regularly purchased, with an Advisory Committee giving expert guidance on how to spend the acquisitions budget of just over £200,000 (a rather modest amount in today's art market). Works are by artists with a connection to Britain, and often also chosen for their relevance to the place in which they will be displayed.

Over a century old, the GAC originally had two rather pragmatic reasons for its existence. First, social changes meant that many government ministers and ambassadors no longer had their own private art collections so they needed some help in decorating their official premises. Second, a nice large painting was a good way to hide cracks in the wall or damaged decoration! The GAC now has over 13,500 items in its collection, and the emphasis has shifted from hiding the cracks to promoting British culture.

The GAC faces particular challenges not shared by other British collections. In hot countries, condensation, mould and insects can all attack the back of paintings so creative ways of protecting them have had to be found. Sites have to be carefully considered: watercolours can only be displayed in low-light conditions, while some images are particularly appropriate because, for example, they show the city in which an embassy is located.

One of the perks of being a minister is that you get to visit the GAC to choose art for your offices. This means that every government reshuffle is pretty busy, as some ministers choose to take their artwork with them to new locations while other pieces are returned to or newly chosen from the collection. A complete change of government is of course even busier, and the new ministers are visiting the collection right now to make their choices. Unsurprisingly, different governments tend to have different taste in art: New Labour was associated with contemporary British art, for example. The current administration has its own tastes, but although markers on certain paintings show that they are about to be moved out to new locations, we didn't get to find out who was taking what!

The tour ended with a chance to look at some of the works, not only paintings and sculpture but also video. There was also a case of Privy Council silver dating back to the reign of Queen Anne or earlier: Privy Councillors used to be given desk equipment including pen trays, ink bottles and candlesticks, all in solid silver. That mixture of genres, periods and official functions was a good summary of the collection as a whole.

If you'd like to visit the GAC, it usually offers tours during Open House; groups can also arrange visits. More details are here.
I also visited the Museums at Night event at the Cuming Museum, as did Transpontine.


Hels said...

Goodness gracious, I have crawled all over ever public and stately home art collection in the UK and have never heard of the Government Art Collection. Off off Tottenham Court Road? Well, well.

Now I am not suggesting that ministers of the crown or ambassadors have sticky fingers, but the temptation to not return works of art at the end of their ministerial tenure must be overwhelming. Is there an up to date catalogue of the 13,500+ items in its collection?

CarolineLD said...

Oh yes, there certainly is! (In fact, you can browse the catalogue on the website.)