United Kingdom

Call for UK’s government collections to merge

A review to be completed in June is expected to consider greater co-operation

Harold Wilson hung Lancashire Fair above his desk, where the picture had to suffer smoke from the prime ministerial pipe

LONDON. A review is nearing completion on whether the UK needs three separate government collections. Altogether the Government Art Collection (GAC), the British Council collection and the Arts Council collection own nearly 30,000 paintings, works on paper and sculptures.

The fundamental question is whether the three collections should remain separate, particularly at a time of severe spending cuts. In March, the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee called for amalgamation.

Some believe there are strong arguments for retaining independence, but if so should there not be greater cooperation between them? The review, by former DCMS head of culture Mick Elliott, is due to be completed ­later this month, on the initiative of the Arts Council. His report will go to the three collections and DCMS.

All three collections comprise British art. The GAC covers the full story, from two royal portraits of 1530 to the present day. The British Council collects post-1900 and the Arts Council post-1945; with acquisitions they both concentrate on the contemporary.

In recent years there has been growing pressure on all three collections to ensure that their art is more publicly accessible. This lies behind the GAC’s first exhibition, which opens at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery this month (the British Council held a series of shows there in 2009-10).

The GAC, founded in 1898 and now funded by DCMS, provides works of art for display in government offices and embassies abroad. Like the other two collections, it also lends to temporary exhibitions. It has 13,500 works, of which 70% are currently hanging.

The British Council collection, established in 1938 and funded via the Foreign Office, runs touring exhibitions which promote UK art internationally. Currently 120 works selected by Portuguese-born Paula Rego are on view in Cascais, Portugal. Works are also displayed in the British Council’s cultural centres in 110 countries. It has 8,500 works, of which 43% are on show.

The Arts Council England collection, founded in 1946 and funded via the DCMS, is administered by the Southbank Centre. Its works were valued at £97m last year. It operates as a loan collection, primarily for UK venues, ­either for travelling exhibitions or individual loans. Current shows include Henry Moore at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Anish Kapoor at Manchester Art Gallery. It has 7,500 works, of which 28% are on display.

The review of the ­collections is expected to consider amalgamation, but this poses problems because the origins and functions of the three bodies are different.

Assuming they remain independent, a single storage and ­conservation facility might seem attractive, although there would be difficulties in arranging this. The GAC is located in Tottenham Court Road (it does not call the ­facility a store, which is regarded as having negative connotations, but a “racking area”). The Arts Council’s main store is at the Oval, south London, and the British Council’s is in west London.

One area where the review is likely to call for more cooperation is over acquisitions, which until recently represented a ­major part of their budgets. There have been a few examples of duplication. All three collections own Jeremy Deller’s print of The History of the World (1997) and both the GAC and the British Council collection have Grayson Perry’s etched Map of Nowhere (2008).

Up to now, there has normally been no deaccessioning, but this may be considered by the review, particularly in the current financial environment. The GAC’s ­acquisition budget was slashed from £194,000 last year to £104,000 this year—and the British Council’s from £150,000 to just £30,000.

The story of a ministerial favourite

The Government Art Collection is responsible for providing works to hang in Downing Street (numbers 10 and 11). Although most works are prints and photographs, there are 79 paintings, including works by Constable, Freud, Raeburn and Sickert. The Art Newspaper has followed up the tale of one particular painting. Lowry’s Lancashire Fair, 1946, was bought by the GAC for £120 a year after it was painted—a bargain considering a similar painting sold for £3.7m in 2007.

When Harold Wilson moved into the study in Downing Street in 1965 he hung Lancashire Fair above his desk (above). The painting remained there under Edward Heath, Wilson (second term), James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In 1994 it was moved out to other government offices, but in 2009 Gordon Brown asked for it back and it remained after David Cameron’s arrival in May 2010. When his wife Samantha was asked to select a work for the Whitechapel show, she plumped for the Lowry.

The Government Art Collection exhibition is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 3 June-2 September

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