Londonist is thrilled by the announcement that the Government Art Collection is to open its doors to the public, with pre-booked tours to be available to interested plebs on Saturday May 17 as part of Museums and Galleries Month. Having previously taken advantage of a rare opportunity to see the home of the GAC during Open House Weekend last year, we urge all art lovers to grab the chance with both hands, as the unassuming location of the collection - a side alley near the Goodge Street end of Tottenham Court Road - hides some beautiful art treasures which deserve better than to be hidden away in some obscure embassy or government office.
Set up originally to provide cheap decoration for His/Her Majesty's representatives' official residences around the world, in recent times the GAC's objectives have been shifted to emphasise the promotion of British art and artists, although giving embassy staff and civil servants something nice to look at while they toil away furthering the national interest is still very much an important part of the collection's role. The GAC, we were told on our Open House tour, is a thing constantly in motion, with pieces shipped around the world constantly, and with works sent back to London to be lovingly restored by a team of art experts, before being crated up and sent back out. Do you have any idea what the heat and humidity of, say, Manila can do to a 19th-century watercolour? It ain't pretty, but the GAC's small staff do their utmost to keep decay and damage at bay.
The GAC's works also grace the walls of Whitehall and parliament, with ministers allowed to request available pieces from the collection for their rooms in Westminster. Changes in goverments are busy times for the collection, with politicians of differing stripes having divergent tastes in art. We can quite easily imagine a northern left-winger preferring a Lowry to a Pre-Raphaelite, for example.
The collection, set up over a century ago, contains works by a multitude of distinguished British artists, although in recent years its annual budget has trailed dismally behind art world price inflation, to its detriment.
Londonist hopes that this opportunity to view the GAC signals an era of wider access, as we taxpayers have, after all, paid for it. Its current home would be totally unsuited to mass visits on the scale of a Tate or a National, but therein lies part of its appeal; a boutique tour with highlights selected by a knowledgeable guide is, we feel, far preferable to fighting the crowds in the Turbine Hall.
However, the collection's directors have to walk the tightrope between providing fair public access to its works and ensuring that the fulfilment of its main raison d'être, namely wallpapering the corridors of power, can continue unimpeded. As it is, "established groups" of up to 20 visitors can book visits to the GAC's London premises on alternate Wednesday evenings, although early reservations are advised.
Our favourite part of the tour was viewing a rather clumsily executed, nondescript 1920s oil painting of a seascape which, our urbane and knowledgeable guide told us, was by a certain Winston Churchill, who said once that he looked forward to the afterlife, as it would provide him with enough time to practice his painting. On the evidence we saw, as Londonist remarked at the time to our long-suffering tour companion, he needed it.