Issue Number: 111
How do ministers choose works of art for their offices? As the first public exhibition of the Government Art Collection is launched, Ariane Bankes finds out how culture minister Ed Vaizey MP, one of the show’s selectors, made his choices.
I have a few minutes to look at the art in Ed Vaizey MP’s capacious office at the Department For Culture Media and Sport before the minister bursts in from another meeting. He has made his selection from 13,500 works held by the Government Art Collection (GAC), choosing many of them for personal reasons, but he readily acknowledges the expertise of Penny Johnson, director of the GAC, in fine- tuning the result. ‘When I first presented her with my wish-list of British artists, she replied, “We are not an Argos catalogue,”’ he laughs.
The culture minister is also one of seven selectors for the first of a series of public exhibitions of works from the GAC, opening at the Whitechapel Gallery in June. Works are being chosen from the cream of the GAC’s holdings that are on display in government buildings and embassies worldwide, or held in its repository. So this exhibition gives the public a chance to see a sample of the collection’s riches, built up over the past 113 years. It will also give fascinating insights into the sensibilities of some of Britain’s leading public figures: others choosing works for the exhibition, along with Vaizey, include Lord Mandelson, Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron.
For the Whitechapel show, Vaizey has plucked from his walls two monoprints by Tracey Emin RA – Margate I Sand (2006, bottom far right) and Still Love You Margate (2006). Why? ‘We get on rather well,’ he confides with a hint of surprise in his voice – and he has childhood memories of that stretch of coastline. ‘I used to visit an uncle and aunt at Broadstairs, and roam those seaside towns – they were pretty run-down then, before the Emin effect.’ Now that Turner Contemporary has opened (page 29) bets are on as to how far it can transform Margate’s fortunes.
Tracey Emin RA, 'Margate I Sand' 2006, chosen by Ed Vaizey MP © Tracey Emin/ Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London). The minister’s other choice for the exhibition is Michael Landy RA’s ink drawing Compulsory Obsolescence, from 2002, a homage to the thousands of personal belongings he destroyed in Break Down (2001), his radical installation-cum-performance that took place in a disused Oxford Street department store.
We continue with a whistle-stop tour of the walls of Vaizey’s office. There is a powerful townscape, Dalston Lane, Summer Day (No.1), 1975 by Leon Kossoff, whom the minister first encountered when he worked in his gap year for Fischer Fine Art; a bold graphic work by Mark Wallinger, whom Vaizey met when he won the Turner Prize in 2007; the screenprint Waterlines, 1989, by Richard Long RA, whose work he was first introduced to by his mother, art critic and writer Marina Vaizey; and a large abstract painting, New Grass (1966) by John Hubbard, who taught the young Ed to swim.
Unknown Artist, 'Queen Elizabeth I 1533-1603' c.1585-95, chosen by Lord Mandelson © Crown Copyright: UK Government Art Collection I ask Vaizey whether the GAC is safe, given the government’s cuts to the arts? And what about the collections belonging to the Arts Council and British Council? ‘They all punch well above their weight in terms of prestige both here and abroad. But an enquiry is due to report this summer into possible economies of scale – we need to prune back any overlaps between these three nationally owned collections.’
We discuss the government’s ten-point plan to encourage philanthropy, and to make it simpler and more tax-efficient for people to give. Vaizey concedes that arts organisations are expected to work harder to elicit both grants and donations, but he hints at a positive outcome: ‘Sustainability should be our legacy. I want to leave the arts more resilient than we found them.’
The Government Art Collection Whitechapel Gallery, London, 020 7522 7888, www.whitechapelgallery.org, 3 June–2 Sep, 2012