Features

Art as cultural diplomacy

Works of art from the Collection are particularly well represented in New York City. The displays show the wide span of the Collection, from portraits and landscapes by 17th-century century painters to works by several of Britain's leading contemporary artists. There are displays in each of the three residences – those of the British Consul-General and the Permanent and Deputy Permanent Representatives to the United Nations. New York is clearly a wonderful town but how does the art on display measure up? What do the diplomats based in New York feel that art contributes to the British presence there?

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Sir John Sawers is a leading British diplomat who was the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations from August 2007 to November 2009. He believes that art can play a specific role as he explains, 'Modern British art sets the stage for modern British diplomacy.  The art demonstrates style, quality and a distinctive British approach, as we try to do in our diplomacy too'. 

The displays are designed to create stimulating environments for visitors to the Residences. Danny Lopez, the Consul General in New York, often hosts diplomatic receptions and has talked about the impact that an art display can make, explaining how: 'Each year we showcase the best of Britain to over 10,000 people: business leaders, politicians, artists and thinkers of all stripes, sports stars and members of the Royal family. It's a wonderful and versatile space...' 

Many of the works selected have links between the artist or the work and the city itself.  At the Consul-General's residence for example there's a 17th-century portrait of King James II as Duke of York, by John Michael Wright (image 1).  This painting was selected for display in New York to link to an important event in the city's history – the time when the English captured the colony of New Netherland in 1664 and renamed it New York, in honour of the Duke, who then presided over the colony. In the 1920s Edward Burra (1905–1976) made many trips to New York, where he frequented jazz clubs in Harlem. His pen and ink drawing 'Jazz Fans' (image 2) is also on display in this Residence. At the Residence of the Ambassador to the United Nations there is 'New York, from Brooklyn' (image 3) a view of the skyline from the late 1930s by Charles Ernest Cundall.

There are several contemporary works on display in New York which have a connection to the city, including a print of a water tower by Rachel Whiteread (image 4). The print depicts the translucent resin cast of the interior of a water tank and is a study for a public sculpture project that she undertook in New York in 1998. 'Breath' (image 5), a painting by Tim Stoner, depicts a group of dancers exercising which references the pioneering work of US dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

Several leading contemporary British artists are represented here in New York, including Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. His print 'Map of an Englishman' (image 6), depicts an extraordinarily detailed insight into the artist's own mind, reflecting his fears and neuroses. Other Turner Prize nominees include Mona Hatoum, represented here by 'Projection' (image 7), a large cotton and abaca map that re-configures the world and filmmaker Isaac Julien, whose photographic diptych 'Fantôme Créole Series' (image 8) of a sewing machine comments on global issues around women's work and emancipation.

The display of art at the Residence of the Deputy Ambassador to the UN was recently refreshed by two paintings from the 1960s. The jaunty fishing boat in Roger Hilton's 'Pequod' (image 9) namesakes Captain Ahab's ship chronicled in Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick. 'Texan Landscape' by Peter Lanyon (image 10) pays colourful homage to the dynamic paintings of the American Abstract Expressionists of the mid 1950s whose work influenced many young British artists at the time.

The impact these displays have on visitors is clear from the feedback that the GAC receives. As Karen Pierce, former Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations told us, 'Many colleagues from the Commonwealth, the UN and the US see this art and it makes a big impression on them.  Not only through the quality of the wonderful works themselves but because of the message they send about a modern UK engaging with the world.'






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