This exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is unusual, and not only because it is probably the most eclectic exhibition you are likely to see. Over 200 works from the Government Art Collection appear in this touring exhibition, some familiar and some not. The exhibition guide explains that these are mainly works by British artists from the sixteenth century onwards, which are used in a variety of settings and for a range of reasons, often selected by government ministers for display in particular places. For this exhibition, the first section, ‘At Work’, shows works selected by particular people, and this is what really interests me about the exhibition. Lord Boateng, Samantha Cameron, Dame Anne Pringle, Lord Mandelson, Nick Clegg, Ed Vaizey and Sir John Sawers each picked between two and five works for display. The exhibition notes point out that these selectors are all associated with the government in some way, ‘casting a light on the intriguing role that art plays in policy or diplomacy’. The selectors have in some cases worked or even lived with these works of art, so clearly have a personal relationship with them, but what the exhibition encourages one to think about is the role that art might play in political situations – providing a talking point, for example, or diffusing a tense situation.
Still, the choices of each person did make me wonder. Samantha Cameron studied Fine Art at university, so one would imagine she has clearly defined tastes, although it’s hard to tell since her four chosen works seem to be rather diverse: Elisabeth Frink’s 1965 bronze Homme Libellule II, William Marlow’s 1775 beautiful oil of A View of St Paul’s and Blackfriars Bridge, Lowry’s Lancashire Fair and Mary Martin’s 1963 steel sculpture White Diagonal (right) (the last three of these are normally on display at 10 Downing Street). The two modern sculptures perhaps show more of Samantha Cameron’s taste in art than the other two: though the Lowry and the Marlow are worthy of attention, they are popular, or even populist, in the case of Lowry, and also related to a familiar place, in the case of Marlow. The Frink and the Martin show slightly more avant-garde taste, perhaps a little edgy and unpredictable.
Lord Mandelson’s selection seems to be very traditional, by contrast. An unknown artist’s portrait of Elizabeth I, a marvellous Rysbrack bronze of Rubens, David Dawson’s photograph of Lucian Freud painting the Queen, and Cecil Stephenson’s Design for the Festival of Britain (1950) (left) – these could hardly be more ‘establishment’, reflecting tradition and heritage without being boring. Nick Clegg, however, provides a less interesting selection: the Dawson image again; Zarina Bhimji’s transparency Howling like dogs, and the peculiarly unappealing Tea by David Tindle.
Obviously I do realise that these selections were made based on the paintings that they had connections with in their political lives; nonetheless, I find Ed Vaizey’s selection a bit worrying: just three, Michael Landy’s Compulsory Obsolescence (2002) and Tracey Emin’s Still Love you Margate and Margate 1 Sand. Somehow these seemed a bit of a cursory choice, as though he just picked something out of the air. These are not good representatives of Emin’s work, I think, and given Vaizey’s role in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport I suppose I was hoping for something more. Still, this section provides an eclectic selection of works which leads into a fascinatingly random collection full of surprises; it’s well worth a look, if only to marvel at what the Government owns, and to think about why.