As the hands of a clock are ticking, so every few years there will be a series of headlines condemning the government’s art collection. It is so now: The Mirror has sparked a small storm of protest against the fact that a work of art by Willie Doherty (price, £ 18,775) was on display at No.10 Downing Street. The same goes for another by Cathy Wilkes (price, £ 70,200). Both works were acquired by the Government Art Collection. The Mirror has implicitly placed these works in the category of Johnson’s “corrupt curtains” – the burning issue of upholstery for the family apartment at No.10 that somehow seems to threaten the Prime Minister more seriously than, say. , the raw fact of 125,000 deaths from Covid-19. “Almost £ 100,000 spent on Downing St paintings as Boris Johnson prepares to cut benefits,” runs the big title.
Let’s get a few things straight. First, any good government should spend money on benefits and culture. To oppose them is fallacious and unfair. But to speak specifically of the Government Art Collection: the organization is headed by a director and a set of curators, independent of any political stripe. It manages a collection of approximately 14,500 works of historical and contemporary art. Acquisitions are made regularly, not at the whim of a politician or his spouse, but with the help of a panel of experts including the directors of Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery in London. A number of works have been acquired to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary this year; Wilkes and Doherty were both born there (Wilkes is now based in Glasgow, Doherty in Donegal).
Most of the funding for the government’s art collection comes from the public purse; some come from philanthropic sources. Much of the work is preserved – there is no permanent public exhibition space – which may explain the eternal feeling of slight mystery that hangs over the collection. (Neither could anyone accuse the collection of being particularly effective in communicating its role and purpose.) Whitechapel Gallery, London. One of his jobs involves placing works of art in embassies abroad, as well as government buildings in the UK. This includes Downing Street and government departments, including ministerial offices, whose incumbents can choose what they would like to see by rummaging through the contents of their red boxes. This traditionally provides an intriguing look into the souls of individual politicians. Ken Clarke had paintings of Elizabeth I and Lord Burghley; Matt Hancock really horrible queen’s damien hirst. Former Arts Minister Ed Vaizey had a Drawing by Michael Landy titled Mandatory Obsolescence, who at least showed wit and foresight. It is traditional for artists to be horrified when they discover that their work is in fact appreciated by a despised government minister.
The works of the collection are exhibited in official rooms where meetings are held and welcome visitors. They are not hung in private apartments at # 10 or # 11. According to a spokesperson for No.10, the Johnsons and their household had nothing to do with the choice or placement of these works. It’s not hard to believe. 10 Downing Street is a great hangout, and there is artwork everywhere – lining the stairs and hallways, and adorning the walls of grand reception rooms. Frankly, I doubt Boris Johnson ever thought about the Doherty’s and the Wilkes. If indeed he even noticed them.
But he should. Cathy Wilkes’ untitled abstract painting is, like much of her work, calm, inner, seemingly vulnerable. When representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2019, she created a series of installations that resonated with a sense of mourning – a tomb-like object dominated the first room, with tiny, delicate objects placed around her like offerings. For an exhibition at the Tramway, Glasgow, in 2014, she grouped figures in an uncertain, perhaps even abject manner, next to strange little household objects; the effect was theatrical and somewhat ghostly, and although the artist did not attribute any unique meaning to the arrangements, at the time visitors remembered the refugees, the displaced and the terrorized, as they fled the war in Syria.
Willie Doherty, nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and 2003, is also a major figure, working primarily in film and photography. His work in No 10 is a collection of photographs of foliage and sharp shadows titled Ashen, Restless. As a child, Doherty looked out of a bedroom window in his family home and saw Bloody Sunday unfold before his eyes. Much of his work deals with historical memory and historical amnesia, the ineradicable nature of past wrongs, the imminence of violence. He’s steeped in the horrors of what happened in Northern Ireland during his lifetime and before: knee pads and missing bodies in bogs, cars on fire. There was a time when some critics thought Doherty should stop thinking about the Troubles. It would be a difficult position to hold now. In 2019, he produced a work called Between, for which he photographed the roads between Derry and Donegal as they cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It would be an instructive work to show in Downing Street. So also, maybe, some text work from 2020 that I keep thinking about. It’s called Labyrinth of Lies.