Review: Government Art Collection at Ulster Museum

The UK Government Art Collection (GAC) is made up of 15,000 works of art that are spread out in British government buildings throughout out the world: “Dating from 1898, the Government Art Collection helps raise the profile of art from the UK while contributing to cultural diplomacy.”

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An exhibition of the GAC — Revealed — is on display at the Ulster Museum from 15 March – 9 June. I popped in today for an inspection. (NB. no information on Ulster Museum home page!)

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As the art covers five centuries, it was always going to be a tough challenge to curate a selection. At first, the presentation of so many varied artists appears eclectic. But this reflects the time and places of acquisition and display in the embassies and official buildings around the world.

A complimentary exhibition guide explains how works are selected for such display: Ministers make visits in person at the GAC and make a selection from a pre-curated short list, reflecting physical considerations (size and scale of place to be displayed) as well as the Minister’s personal preferences.

A related book, Art, Power, Diplomacy: Government Art Collection, The Untold Story, is also available at the museum bookshop.

A few particular items among the menagerie shown at the Revealed exhibition caught my eye.

From the past, there is a trilogy of queens from the 16th and 17th centuries: Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) (Ministry of Justice, London); Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) (10 Downing Street, London); and Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, consort of James VI (HM Ambassador’s Residence, Copenhagen). For the unfamiliar, that’s a lot of history to explain in three paintings!

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Compulsory Obsolenscence (2002) by Michael Landy

Compulsory Obsolenscence (2002) by Michael Landy is good modern art for me. It is a hand drawn record of reactions to his previous event, Break Down (2001), in which he reduced 7,226 items to dust. A post-installation work? A legacy of disappearance?

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Wajid (2000) by Seamus Nicolson

I was pleased to see several photographic works included. Perhaps he would not consider these as street photography (ever en vogue these days), but Seamus Nicolson’s Jason (2000) and Wajid (2000) are carefully planned candid captures of contemporary British life at the start of the 21st century. Knowing when photography is art is difficult, but these surely qualify.

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Peas Are the New Beans (1999) by Bob and Roberta Smith

Though Bob and Roberta Smith’s Peas Are the New Beans (1999) made me smile. In reference to what falls out of fashion becomes fashionable again, how many successive cabinets and revolving political parties has this work seen on its display in the Cabinet Office?

While there appears a deficiency in 18th and 19th century GAC works on show here (low acquisition and/or selection for official display in government buildings?), this Revealed exhibition is to be applauded. It brings a breadth of artistic styles to a wider audience. Indeed, I hope the Ulster Museum feels duly inspired to present more exhibitions such as this, to educate and expand our creative horizons.

There are a series of lunchtime gallery talks, including a free ticketed lecture on Tuesday, 16 April. My artistic appetite has been so whetted that I’ll make the effort to learn more about this Revealed exhibition and the work behind the GAC.

Julia Toffolo (Deputy Director & Senior Registrar, DCMS) lecture on Government Art Collection, Ulster Museum, 16/4/2013:

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