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September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2010

Age of posterity

This government's taste in art is a massive improvement on New Labour's shallow predilection for the hip and contemporary

Battle scenes, eh? Some predict the social policies Iain Duncan Smith is pushing through may cause trouble on the streets to which this week's student protest was a mere aperitif, so it is interesting that he has chosen five battle paintings from the government art collection to hang in his offices at the Department of Work and Pensions. And judging from his talk of the sinful unemployed this morning it sounds like he is shaping up to be the George Bush of social conflict, inviting those enraged by his policies to "bring it on". But aside from this jibe – which is too cheap and easy for me not to make – I feel neither shocked, surprised, nor cynical about the government taste in art revealed by a reply to a Labour MP's freedom of information request.

A trite and meaningless claim to be allied with progressive cultural forces was one of the least attractive and least substantial qualities of New Labour. In his memoir The New Machiavelli, key New Labour insider Jonathan Powell admits the "Cool Britannia" stuff in Blair's early years in office was dumb. It backfired and so, he ruefully acknowledges, did the Millennium Dome. What survived of those clumsy manoeuvrings in the last eight years or so of New Labour government was a low-level flirtation with young British art. This meant, in large part, putting hip art in their offices and purchasing it, via the government art collection.

I was deeply troubled by a behind the scenes tour of this collection a couple of years ago. Troubled because, in its stores near Tottenham Court Road, 18th and 19th-century paintings hung in their dozens, unwanted by Labour ministers. I was told that modern and contemporary art was in favour. In other words it was not a satirist's fiction but a reality that New Labour identified with New Art and – long after radical hopes had abandoned them – ministers were asserting their credibility by having a Julian Opie or whatever in the office.

How empty. If I had a choice of works from the government art collection I would probably mix up past and present – the choice of George Osborne sounds quite astute in this regard. It is right for the government art collection to be purchasing new works by current artists during such a boom time for British art. But surely politicians should also be interested in history. That is a useful thing for them to know about, while contemporary art is arguably a quite useless thing for them to know about. I like the idea that my rulers are reading books on European and world history, that they are thinking about the issues raised in, say, Tim Blanning's book The Pursuit of Glory. And in that spirit I think it's good for them to hang paintings of battles and of historical leaders such as Wellington, Disraeli and Gladstone. History paintings impart a sense of history; portraits are studies of power and character. They are relevant and it was absurd for New Labour to shun them.

It is also right that government offices should celebrate the entire history and heritage of British art, not just what is fashionable now. As for the £20,000 cost of transporting and rehanging, well, it's chickenfeed, hardly likely to buy an aircraft carrier. To be honest, this welcome and natural change in what ministers hang on their walls exemplifies why the coalition looks to some people like government by adults, for adults. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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