Culture Select Committee of the House of Commons: evidence

Culture Select Committee, House of Commons

Having already given evidence to the Culture Select Committee of the House of Commons, the editor of The Jackdaw was asked to justify some of his criticisms in writing. What follows is his further submission to the Committee…

We were discussing, I recall, the Arts Council Collection, a repository of some 7,546 works (plus 67 more bought in the last twelve months), which has no permanent home, the overwhelming majority of the work (80% according to an ACE employee, 70% according to the Chief Executive of ACE) being at any one time in store. I stated my belief that in times of financial hardship it is imprudent that new acquisitions should be made of work by artists who are either already extensively represented in its own or in other Government collections: for your information, apart from the Arts Council’s these state-owned holdings are most conspicuously the Government Art Collection (13,500 works, plus 75 new works added this year); the British Council Collection (8,500 works, plus 100 new works bought recently); and the Tate (78,000 works, more of whose recent acquisitions below).

Jeremy Deller, History of the World

In the last year the Arts Council has acquired a work by Jeremy Deller (who is currently a serving trustee of the Tate; a gallery which awarded him the Turner Prize in 2004). It is the third work in the collection by the artist. The Tate also already owns five major works by Deller, four of which are not on display. These include his most famous work, a film and installation of the reenactment of a confrontation between police and demonstrators at Orgreave during the 1984 Miner’s Strike – a work funded, incidentally, by the Arts Council Lottery. The Government Art Collection has also this year bought a work from Deller; indeed it is the same work as one of the undisplayed pieces in the Tate’s collection, and also repeats the same Deller work in the Arts Council Collection The British Council owns three works by Deller, one of them being – you guessed it – the same work – History of the World – bought this year by the Government Art Collection and which is also in the permanent collections of the Tate and the Arts Council. Is the public trying to corner the market in this work, for it owns four copies of it? History of the World is, incidentally, a moderately amusing flow diagram relating Acid House music to Brass Bands: I suppose it would be considered impertinent nitpicking to comment that it contains not the merest thread of art. There are also ten works by Deller in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Deller has recently been in the forefront of the campaign by Turner Prize artists to ensure that funding for the visual arts is maintained and, if possible, increased. His support is not surprising really, is it?

Such duplications are obviously wasteful and indicate more generally that collections might rationalise their purchasing nationally, or at least regionally. How many national collections, each harbouring enormous quantities of unseen work do we need buying works – even the same ones – by the same few fashionable artists?

You must bear in mind that the Arts Council and British Council collections were both inaugurated to make purchases from artists at the beginning of their careers in order to give them confidence and support and encourage them through the rough period immediately following art college. This seems an estimable use of scarce resources because established artists don’t need help from the state. Or you wouldn’t have thought they did. That laudable policy has been overturned by both the Arts Council and British Council to the extent that they are now acquiring works from a roll-call of the most recognisable and successful brands in British art… Effectively, both are duplicating the collecting responsibility of the Tate.

Also this year, the Arts Council Collection bought nine works by Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer and also, like Deller, a Turner Prize winner and a serving trustee of the Tate Gallery. (Incidentally, why any of our British photographers don’t qualify as a trustee of our principal gallery is bewildering. Mr Chairman, your committee may at some stage decide to look into the fishy resistance of the Tate to having appointed to its Board of Trustees any but Turner Prize winners and nominees.) These nine works were acquired despite the Tate already owning 63 works by Tillmans, none of which is currently on display. The British Council also owns 11 works by Tillmans. Forgive my impertinence, but what is the work of a German photographer doing in the collection of a body whose founding function is to advance the standing of British Culture abroad?

Another bulk acquisition this year to the Arts Council Collection was five works by Keith Coventry. The collection already has in its vaults 23 works by this artist. The Tate also owns four works,