For over 100 years the Government has been collecting art through purchase, legacy and donations. The official collection started in 1898 and is used to populate government buildings across the globe with artworks helping to promote British art and history while contributing to cultural diplomacy. As the collection is owned by the nation it is made accessible by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, both online and through guided tours.
Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport,
Queens Yard, Tottenham Court Road, London.
Variable dates once a month, 12.30-1.30pm
Free admission. Booking online and limited to 4 tickets per person. Not suitable for wheelchair users. Portable stools are available to borrow for those less able to stand.
The Government Art Collection is diverse, there's over 14,000 works of art with everything from 16th century portraits to newly commissioned works so it's impossible to say what you'll see. 70% of the collection is active within government buildings in the UK and abroad with 30% in stores, items are also on loan. Loans vary between single art works for example the portrait of Lord Byron was moved from it's home in the British Embassy in Athens to be part of the Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know 2002 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery to the recent An Eyeful of Wry 2017 exhbition at the University of Hull where the whole exhibition was populated by the Government Art Collection.
A unique insight is given by this tour which differs dramatically in content to similar behind the scenes tour by galleries. They like any other art collction have to battle logistics, conditions, funding and the ever constant accessibility vs conservation requirements. However few galleries are tasked with the logistical challenges posed by transporting works of art to the Falkland islands, the answer by the way being use a rather large diplomatic bag. And yes, it is really a canvas bag. Or the cultural and diplomatic implications of choosing a particular painting for display in a politically sensitive country.
Just basic logistics which most galleries take for granted become tricky. Will the art work fit? When the most of the locations you're talking about are thousands of miles away the answer comes in the form of having every wall in every government building documented with pictures and measurements. Not to mention dealing with buildings located in quite litterally every climate on earth with no museum conditions. This perspective makes it a very different experience to any other behind the scenes tour.
The conservation aspect of the tour is fairly superficial, partly due to time restrictions, partly dut to the guide not being a specialist in this area and partly as this is not a specialist conservation studio. That said the level that it was pitched at seemed to satisfy most members of the tour group and the before and after pieces showing what can be achieved were certainly worth including this as part of the tour.
I was slightly unsure what to expect when we arrived outside a building down an alley way off Tottenham Court Road. It certainly didn't look like a gallery or a government building either, a small sign for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport indicated we were in the right place and so we ventured in. This is not the usual experience but it doesn't disapoint. The slightly clandestine entrance plus the government security that manned the desk semmed to make the small group of people who had already arrived more excited than the prospect of an hour long tour not knowing what they were about to see should be. This was hightened by our tour guide, a member of the Art Collection team coming to collect us and entering the large goods lift installed so large paintings can moved.
Its a very human reaction to enjoy anything that is exclusive, special and limited access. I've often marvelled at how visitors react at being allowed to enter the 'staff only' areas, put on a hard hat or are allowed to climb scaffolding. To the list that excites educated, middle aged and middle class visitors I can now add travelling in a large goods lift. Arrival sequences are often overlooked but are incredibly important, like an wedding invitation it sets up expectations about what you're going to exprience. The arrival for the Government Art Tour is not designed, it's working with what they have but it works and it works surprisingly well.
There is a small gallery space, modern plain white walls highlight some of the contemorary pieces. After an introduction with our guide where the orgins of the collection are explained we are free to wander the small gallery.
Our tour then progresses to the stores and conservation space, these are very much working environments. All the clutter of bottles and conservation materials add the the atmosphere. The feeling is very much of popping in when tools have been downed, which due to the timing over lunch I suspect is exactly what has happpened. This however adds to the charm and also plays completely to the excitement of the 'behind the scenes' atmosphere.
Being at liberty to peruse the stores, pulling out racking and viewing art works as Government ministers do to choose the paintings for their private office has a novetly value which I struggle to think could be matched by any other organisation. It's certainly not the most informative hour I've spent, or one where I've gasped at delight at seeing little seen masterpieces (make no mistake these are not the stores of the National Gallery) but as an experience it was certainly unusual and a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
To view the Government Art Collection online click here