Martin Gayford talks to Penny Johnson, the director of the UK’s Government Art Collection for Bloomberg:
There are about 13,500 items, of which some 2,500 are oil paintings. This collection — equivalent to a small museum — began when the government noticed in 1898 that it had accumulated various pictures and statues, and brought them together under the Ministry of Works. It was established as the GAC in 1982.
This contains works by such well-known figures as William Hogarth, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. The last is an exception, since most works in the collection are by artists who were at least resident in Britain. Warhol’s 1985 screen prints of Queen Elizabeth II qualified, understandably, because of their subject and hang in New York and Washington. […] Johnson’s choice of highlights includes works by Paul Nash, L.S. Lowry and Barbara Hepworth.
Of a 550,000 pound ($931,835) annual budget, about 200,000 pounds goes to the purchase of works. The best aspect of the GAC remit is commissioning new work, such as a Michael Craig-Martin painting, “Lighthouse,” for the Moscow embassy or a Conrad Shawcross sculpture, “Axiom,” for the Ministry of Justice.
Though its existence is little known, the government’s art collection is far from hidden. At any given time, some 70 percent of it is distributed around 430 buildings throughout the world that — though not exactly public — aren’t quite private either. Among them are the great ministries of Whitehall, embassies in almost every capital city, and numbers 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street.