Friday, May 15, 2009

The Government Art Collection

It used to be said that one of the major 'perks' for any Government Minister was the fact that, on appointment, they could then request art for their offices from the Governent Art Collection. (see the end for what I mean).

Following on from Wednesday's post about all publicly owned art in the UK (Art of the state - and the state of the art), today's post is about that huge cultural resource - the Government Art Collection. Rather surprisingly very few British citizens know anything about this - 0r have ever seen any of it. Work is now in hand to remedy this sad state of affairs - and that's highlighted in this post.

What is the Government Art Collection?

The Government Art Collection was started in 1898 and has been developed over the last 110+ years largely through funding by that much abused source of revenue - the British taxpayer. (I'm writing as Pariliament is under a severe cloud due to the huge furore over MPs expenses)

It now comprises over 13,000 works which have been acquired by purchase, commission, gift and bequest. These are typically works which are
  • by artists who are either British,
  • or have strong British connections
  • or have created art about about a significant subject associated with Britain - such as Andy Warhol's screen prints of the Queen.
The notion is that such art should play a significant role in promoting British art and culture across diverse and international environments.

The collection includes very many works in a wide range of media - paintings, sculptures, drawings and watercolours, prints, photographs and textiles. The scope of the collection is also very wide in terms of age of the piece and its subject matter.

Who looks after the Government Art Collection?

Back in 1898, reponsibility for all works of art on display in all government buildings across the world was given to what was known then as the Office of Works. In addition, in 1907, it was decided to that there should be an an annual budget to purchase paintings of historical or official interest for the decoration of public buildings and offices in London.

Subsequently (from 1941) responsibility passed to the Ministry of Works which became absorbed by the Property Services Agency. The collection is now looked after by a government department known as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Where can you see the Government Art Collection - in person?

You can view the art at various offices of state and in approximately 400 British Government buildings in the UK and abroad. In the UK, this includes 10 Downing Street, Lancaster House, main Whitehall departments, and Regional Government Offices. Places abroad include diplomatic buildings such as Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates-General in most countries.

Here are links to a few examples of recent projects including for example the Ambassador's residence in Washington DC

Whether you are one of the lucky few who can gain access to view rather depends on the nature of the building which houses it and your own personal status in relation to access - like do you have a an entry pass!

Where can you see the Collection - as a virtual exhibition?

The 2,500 oil paintings in the Government Art Collection are now listed - with images - in The Government Art Collection published by the The Public Catalogue Foundation in December 2007. You can read this article in The Guardian about its publication.

More than 9,000 works – over two thirds of the Collection – are now listed on The Government Art Collection website - and this is a huge step forward in terms of promoting access to the collection.

The website tells you how to use the database. You can:
  • search the picture library
  • search for works in a specific medium - I tried inserting 'egg tempera' and came up with just three works. A search for watercolour paintings produced a bigger selection - but only 121 paintings in total - which seems a miserable number given Great Britain has been home to some rather fine watercolour painters.
  • see work by specific artists - you can check which ones are included in an alphabetical directory of artists
  • in principle - check out work from different historical periods, except for the fact I couldn't get this to work. Every time I tried to look at the 1933-145 work it threw up work from the nineteenth century - suggesting there's some tidying required on tagging and labelling pieces in the database.
  • review all the portraits
They've omitted genre (other than portraits) and I think that's a mistake (or maybe that's a planned development?). The database also does not provide you with a selection of mediums in the collection and hence the search results seem to me to have the potential to be a bit 'hit and miss'.

For example, the thing I'm not clear about is if there are only 2,500 oil paintings and 121 watercolours - what on earth makes up the rest of the 13,000 items in the collection? It appears from this Freedom of Information Act document - which records the Works of Art on loan from the Government Art Collection to HM treasury (1 Horse Guards Road and 11 Downing Street) that rather a lot of the collection seems to be prints and photographs.

One thing I'm rather amazed about is why they are purchasing work when I'm sure many artists would be happy to donate a work and take a tax break. For example, being able to say your work is in the Goverment Art Collection provides a massive boost to the calibre of any artist's CV and should boost marketing of their work. In addition while I have no problems with artists being remunerated for their work I'm not sure funding from the taxpayer is best spent on remunerating galleries for their commission.

I'm also wondering who makes the choices about which work is selected and how it is acquired. Also whether if exposed to the light 'the system' and 'the rules' it would stand up to scrutiny by "the man in the street" - otherwise known as the British taxpayer.

I only ask as it is quite clear that other aspects of 'perks' for both Ministers of the Crown and MPs do NOT stand up to close examination and that taxpayers' funds have been wasted in a very extravagant way.

and finally......

The collection does not have a valuation attached to it, although it does record how much was paid for each item.

In response to a question from Philip Hammond (Shadow Chief Secretary To the Treasury, Treasury; Runnymede & Weybridge, Conservative),
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what the (a) total purchase price and (b) estimated current market value are of the works of art from the Government Art Collection displayed in the private offices of HM Treasury Ministers.
Barbara Follett (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Culture), Department for Culture, Media & Sport; Stevenage, Labour) responded as follows

Works from the Government Art Collection in private offices of Treasury Ministers, and their purchase prices, are set out in the following table. All prices include VAT where applicable.

It is not possible to provide a current value for each of these works. The monetary value of a work of art can be accurately assessed only at the time of its purchase, sale or by professional valuation. The collection is not actively traded and it would not be a justifiable expenditure of public funds to maintain up-to-date professional valuations of the collection.

You can see the titles of all the work and the prices paid in this detailed minute in Hansard.

Now the interesting aspect of all of this is whether or not having art of this calibre on office walls would be considered a 'perk' and a 'benefit in kind' which then becomes a taxable benefit from the perspective of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

I wonder what the official view on that one would be?

(Note: Overseas readers may miss the drift of some of the above comments if you're not familiar with some of the outrageous 'claims' we've been hearing about Parliament and MPs in the last few days. I'm not seeking to malign the Goverment Art Collection in any way - but I do wonder when its acquisition and distribution policies were last subjected to really rigorous public scrutiny)

Making a Mark reviews......


Bob Ebdon said...

Most MPs benefits are tax free - all of their recent expenses claims are not taxed for example.

Great cartoon in the Times - a group of schoolkids looking at a sweetshop window where there is a message - "No more than two MPs allowed ina at any one time"

Making A Mark said...

It really has been a "smash and grab" fest hasn't it?

I think some of the people who are most annoyed about this current fracas are employees in the public sector where the regimes around expenses are 'tight' to put it mildly!

Under general tax law some, but not all, expenses payments and benefits are taxable remuneration.

So for example, most companies have an agreement with HMRC about what will count as an expense which can be reimbursed without any taxable benefit being incurred.

Such agreements frequently EXCLUDE some benefits in kind - such as a car parking space at work which has value - and consequently these are treated as taxable benefits. You don't derive any income from the benefit but you do have to pay tax on it.

Most company agreements with HMRC would also EXCLUDE an awful lot of the taxable benefits which have been claimed by MPs. Which means in my book that if an MP has received a taxable benefit then they should also get the tax bill to go with it!

I would argue that a lot of what has been claimed is a taxable benefit. I just don't understand how Parliament and the MPs have been able to get away with this for so long! Although personally I am looking long and hard in the direction of The Speaker!

HMRC's current tax guide on expneses and benefits appears to be somewhat distant from "the rules" as devised by the House of Commons!

What's more it would appear that HMRC has not taken any sort of stand on this - in complete contrast to other employers in both public and private sectors. Plus the government's watchdog - the National Audit Office - looks as if it's been completely asleep on the job!

I think this one is going to run and run...........

Thanks for the tip off about the cartoon - I wonder if anybody is doing a collection of the best ones?

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