The UK government has been lambasted for spending £100,000 on two works by Cathy Wilkes and Willie Doherty. But the Government Art Collection is not in the same category as the Johnsons’ curtains
As the hands of a clock turn, so, every few years, will there be a set of headlines condemning the Government Art Collection. So it is now: the Mirror has whipped up a small storm of protest over the fact that an artwork by Willie Doherty (price, £18,775) has gone on display in No 10, Downing Street. So has another by Cathy Wilkes (price, £70,200). Both works were acquired by the Government Art Collection. The Mirror has placed these works, by implication, in the category of the Johnsons’ “corrupt curtains” – the red-hot issue of soft furnishings for the family’s apartment at No 10 that somehow seems to threaten the prime minister more severely than, say, the brute fact of 125,000 deaths from Covid-19. “Nearly £100,000 spent on Downing St paintings as Boris Johnson prepares to slash benefits,” runs the headline.
Let’s straighten a few things out. First, any good government should be spending money on benefits and culture. Setting them in opposition is disingenuous and unfair. But to turn specifically to the Government Art Collection: the body is run by a director and a set of curators, independent of party-political allegiance. It cares for a collection of around 14,500 works of both historic and contemporary art. Acquisitions are regularly made, not according to the whim of a politician or their spouse, but with the help of an expert panel that includes the directors of Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery in London. A number of works were acquired to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland this year; both Wilkes and Doherty were born there (Wilkes is now based in Glasgow, Doherty in Donegal).