What we do

Works of art from the Government Art Collection (GAC) are displayed in UK Government buildings in nearly every capital city, making it the most dispersed collection of British art in the world. The role of the Collection is to promote British art while contributing to cultural diplomacy. Dating from 1898, the Collection has expanded over the years and now contains over 14,000 works of art from the 16th century to the present day by mainly British artists in a broad range of media.

Bridget Riley's painting 'Reflection' in the Ambassador's Residence, Cairo

Bridget Riley’s painting ‘Reflection’ in the Ambassador’s Residence, Cairo

© Crown Copyright

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Selecting and placing works of art

We select works of art for display in Government buildings including 10 Downing Street and Ministerial Offices in the UK, and the reception areas of British Embassies and Residencies in nearly every capital city across the globe. Where possible we select works of art that have a connection with a particular location. For example, the Ambassador’s Residence in Cairo features ‘Reflection’, a painting by Bridget Riley (image 1). Riley visited Egypt and the colours in this painting were inspired by the wall paintings she saw in the tombs of Upper Egypt. When thinking about where work should be displayed, we also consider other criteria, such as the architecture of the building, the environmental conditions and the functions of individual rooms and spaces.

Recent new displays of art have included in those in Vienna, Washington and Wellington and, in the UK, 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the Northern Ireland Office and the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Developing the Collection

New works of art are purchased with the approval of an Advisory Committee. We acquire works by artists who have a strong British connection: for example, those who were born in Britain, or who have lived or are living in the country. Works must be robust enough to withstand being displayed in a non-gallery environment – a Minister’s office or a working building such as an Embassy or Residence.

Between 2011 and 2013 there was a moratorium on purchasing new work for the Collection. However in this period some work was donated, including ‘More Passion’ (2010) a neon work given by Tracey Emin for 10 Downing Street in August 2011, and a set of prints by 12 leading artists celebrating the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Prior to this, new additions included ‘Lights’ (1987) a painting by Lisa Milroy; ‘Oak’ (2010), a hybrid sculpture by 2008 Turner Prize nominee Goshka Macuga, and an oil painting by Henry Howard of merchant and diplomat Thomas Rowcroft, who was assassinated in 1824 within three months of his arrival in Peru.

The GAC also commissions work for new or refurbished buildings. In 2009, Marta Marcé was commissioned to make some work for the new British Embassy in Madrid. The economic climate has meant that recently the GAC have not been commissioning new work for government buildings.

Maintaining and caring for our works

The Collection is cared for by a small team based in central London. A registrar monitors all works of art entering the Collection and keeps track of the flow of works in and out of our premises. We also fully document all aspects of the works, including copyright and image reproduction, on a comprehensive database.

Two art technicians carry out some preventative conservation and restoration to the works of art (and their frames) in the Collection at our premises. This work is carefully programmed to match both the requirements for specific buildings and the safety and care of the works themselves. All other conservation work is contracted out to freelance conservators (image 3).

Developing public access

Interpretation is provided for the recipients of the works of art and the visitors to the buildings in which they are displayed. This is backed up by an on-going research programme into historical, modern and contemporary works.

For the past 50 years we have regularly lent work from the Collection to public exhibitions. We respond positively to requests for loans wherever the practical, security and environmental conditions are acceptable.

We give tours of our central London building which are very popular. (image 4) We currently run three tours every month for organized groups as well as taking part in the annual London Open House and Museums at Night weekends.

We have published a number of catalogues on aspects of the Collection, including a catalogue of all the oil paintings in the Collection in collaboration with the Public Catalogue Foundation. In 2011, ‘Art Power and Diplomacy’, the first book about the history and role of the Collection, was published.