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Government opens up its art collection

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 09 September 2010

George Osborne has an etching by Grayson Perry called Print for a Politician and Eric Pickles chose Yorkshire Roads by fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney. Culture editor Matthew Cain looks into the government's art collection.

Government's secret art collection to be made public

The art chosen by ministers for the walls of their government offices can sometimes provide fascinating insights into their personalities. 

Margaret Thatcher, for example, was a fan of military and naval figures such as Nelson and Wellington. 

Gordon Brown, during his time as chancellor, had a dining room dominated by a series of work by Cornelia Parker, which is noticeably dark and gloomy, yet has a subject matter that hints at a sensitive centre. 

And Cherie Blair made sure that during her husband's time in 10 Downing Street, high-achieving women as well as men were represented in the portraits on the walls of the official state rooms.

But the Government Art Collection has a much more serious role than simply providing politicians and their wives decorations for their walls. 

It exists to promote British art and culture in government buildings and embassies around the world. And it's a role that receives the approval of art historian Tim Marlow. 

"‘I think for a long time the British have been seen and we have seen ourselves as predominantly literary," he explained.

"When Kenneth Clark was director of the National Gallery in the 1950s and he said that we didn't really have a visual tradition in this country, that was quite damaging and damning. Now we've become a much more visually literate and visually confident nation. And the fact that major art is in the ministries and the embassies, I think that's important and says a lot about the way a nation sees itself and what its cultural values are."

Art from last 400 years
The major art Marlow mentions consists of around 13,500 works, including pieces by most of the best known British artists from the last 400 years. Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Paul Nash, David Hockney – they’re all here. There are even three screen prints by Andy Warhol, a rare non-British artist represented in the collection. 

These were chosen as their subject is the Queen and they currently hang in British government buildings in New York and Washington. Like the Warhols, an impressive 70 per cent of the collection is on display in government buildings at any one time. The rest are kept in storage or under restoration in spacious yet rather nondescript offices in central London. 

Also based in these offices is the director of the collection, Penny Johnson. She has a budget of just £200,000 a year to buy new work – a miniscule amount when seen in the context of government expenditure or compared to the acquisitions budget of some of our national collections. 

And it’s an amount that – on the whole – is spent wisely. Advising the team and approving every acquisition is a panel of experts which includes the National Gallery's Nicholas Penny, Tate's Nicholas Serota and the National Portrait Gallery's Sandy Nairne.

When Johnson applied for her position in 1997, she found it difficult to find out much about the collection. Since then, the veil of secrecy has gradually been lifted – thanks partly to the rise of the internet. And next year sees the culmination of this long-term policy. 

Special exhibition
For the first time in its 112-year history, the collection will be shown in a special exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery before a tour to Birmingham and Belfast. The plan is for leading artists, politicians and government staff such as the Downing Street cleaners to make their own selections from a collection that has always been defined by the tastes of a series of individuals.

News of the collection's first ever public exhibition is bound to be greeted favourably. We can only hope that it is not a sweetener for savage cuts to the arts when the government publishes its comprehensive spending review in October. Or – even worse – a consolation prize to make up for a re-introduction of admission charges to our national collections. 

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