Government Art Collection, Whitechapel Gallery, review

A new exhibition gives the public a rare insight into the work – and works – of the Government Art Collection, says Richard Dorment.

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In his best-seller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell made the point that human beings make up their minds about people, places and situations based on first impressions – and that these split-second judgments usually turn out to be right. The Government Art Collection (GAC) exists to create those first impressions. Established in 1935, its purpose is to ensure that the art on the walls of buildings the British government owns both at home and abroad is of the highest quality. Art tells the world who we are and the values we share – and anyone who doubts it should visit a foreign embassy or consulate where otherwise bare walls are adorned with the country’s national flag or a photograph of its supreme leader.

Because it acquires, conserves, displays and interprets the works of art it owns, the Government Art Collection is, in effect, a museum – but one in which the contents are dispersed throughout the world. It displays something like 13,500 works in 400 locations ranging from 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Home Offices to our embassies in Paris, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. The scale is astounding. For 10 years I sat on the GAC’s advisory committee and yet even from that vantage point it was hard for me to grasp fully the range and variety of its holdings.

A major exhibition of the collection would therefore be logistically impossible, but over the course of the coming year the GAC is staging a series of five small exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery both to showcase some of its highlights and to give the public a better idea of how it works and what it does. There are, for example, surprisingly few rules about what the GAC can and cannot acquire. It always buys British, of course, and will try if possible to place works of art in places where they have a particular relevance. Thomas Phillips’s portrait of Lord Byron, a national hero to the Greek people, hangs in our embassy in Athens. In Cairo we display an abstract canvas by Bridget Riley inspired by the colours of ancient Egyptian wall paintings. And a silly little painting by Bob and Roberta Smith simply declares in multi-coloured lettering “PEAS ARE THE NEW BEANS” and is apparently a favourite with the bean counters at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

This brings up the one aspect of the GAC’s work that catches the public’s imagination: when a minister takes up a new post, he or she is entitled to ask the GAC to change the art on the walls of their office to reflect their own tastes, politics and interests. Every time you see a minister being interviewed on TV with art work in the background, remember that the GAC put it there, that the minister knows it’s there, and that he or she may want to be seen standing in front of it to send out a message.

In her excellent catalogue essay, Penny Johnson, the director of the GAC, recalls the spot-on satire in a 1986 episode of Yes, Prime Minister. A TV producer advises the PM (Jim Hacker) to give his forthcoming speech against a background of “high-tech furniture, high-energy yellow wallpaper, abstract paintings, in fact everything to disguise the absence of anything new in the actual speech”. To this the Prime Minister replies: “I’d like to go back to my original dynamic speech – you know, about the grand design.” In that case, says the TV producer, “it’s the reassuring traditional background. Oak panelling, leather volumes, 18th-century portraits.”

Miss Johnson’s point is that art can be used not only as a diplomatic tool, but as a way of branding a political party. Until Labour came to power in 1997, the GAC provided government offices with Old Master portraits and blue-chip 20th-century art. Soon after the election, out went the heavily framed historical paintings from 10 and 11 Downing Street and in came modern paintings, prints and sculptures. With over 60 new ministers in office, the demand for contemporary art suddenly began to outstrip the ability of the GAC to supply it. In part this reflected a complete reversal of taste and fashion that took place in Britain in the 1990s in response to the exhibitions staged by Charles Saatchi and the publicity surrounding the Turner Prize. But a large part of the craze for modernity was a conscious attempt by the Blair government to be seen at home and abroad as youthful, fresh, and forward-looking.

Art helped to change Britain’s image abroad as well. At the British embassy in Paris, the ambassador asked the GAC to stage a display of new British art, including Rachel Whiteread’s resin model for the sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and Gillian Wearing’s iconic video Dancing in Peckham. So successful was the exhibition as a showcase for the renaissance in the visual arts across the Channel that the displays have changed with each new ambassador and continue to this day.

This small (too small) exhibition looks at the endlessly fascinating question of the choices politicians and diplomats make when they take up their posts. The GAC has asked seven public figures to select works from the paintings, sculptures or drawings that are either on display in their place of work now (culture minister Ed Vaizey, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) or had chosen when they were in office (Lord Mandelson, Lord Boateng). Samantha Cameron picks four works from No 10.

The result is a neat Rorschach test. Lord Mandelson reveals a lot about his taste and personality (a portrait of Elizabeth I by an anonymous Renaissance artist; David Dawson’s wonderful photo of Lucian Freud Painting Elizabeth II; Cecil Stephenson’s Painting: Design for the Festival of Britain [1950] as a tribute to his grandfather Herbert Morrison). Sir John Sawers, Chief of the Intelligence Service, reveals nothing in a choice that ranges from an 1876 watercolour by the Victorian Albert Goodwin to Jim Lambie’s painted wooden door sculpture. As for Nick Clegg, one of his more appealing qualities is what I can only call his artlessness: anyone with political antennae would instinctively have avoided Ugandan-born Zarina Bhimji’s colour transparency showing ceiling fans scattered over the floor of an empty office – a melancholy image of obsolescence and uselessness that reads like a cry for help.

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