Representation of the People Project 2018-28

The Government Art Collection is displayed in key government buildings in the UK, and at embassies abroad. It represents Britain to the world through its artists and their work. All of Britain’s communities should see themselves represented in this collection and know it includes them.

As a collection built over more than 120 years, the decisions over which artworks to include, the tags they have been catalogued under, and the writing of stories about them, have taken place in particular moments in history and bear the imprints of those moments.

The Representation of the People Project began in 2018, to acknowledge this and identify where the Collection has engaged with representations, and ideas, of particular groups in society over others. This project aims to cut across all our work, to ensure that the Collection represents British art and artists in ways that allow all of Britain’s communities to feel a sense of belonging with the Collection.

We began this initiative in 2018 by committing to only collect artworks by women, to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act (1918). This Act gave women in Britain the right to vote for the first time, and abolished property qualifications required for men over 21 to vote. Overnight, the size of Britain’s electorate grew from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. In recognition that it took a further decade for women to get equitable voting rights, we set ourselves a ten-year target through this project to work towards a full assessment (and subsequent actions) on representation in the Collection in areas of age, physical ability, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and regional focus.

Two works from the Collection side by side, left: View on the Kwanga River with Native in a Canoe by Henry Bailey. Right: Man drinking coffee by Joy Labinjo

These two works from the Collection were purchased almost 40 years apart and show a very different relationship between artistic agency/viewpoint and subject matter. These acquisition choices indicate the scope of re-interpretation and reassessment that we are committed to examining across the whole Collection as part of the Representation of the People Project. Left: View on the Kwanga River with Native in a Canoe by Henry Bailey. Right: Man drinking coffee by Joy Labinjo © Joy Labinjo

What we are doing

  • Collaborating on research: We have been working with national collections and research centres including the Arts Council Collection, British Council Collection, the British Art Network and UAL Decolonising Arts Institute (DeAI, University of the Arts London), collaborating and contributing to research, and assessing procedures that will inform ways of collecting, cataloguing and interpreting artworks that are more inclusive.
  • Regional acquisitions: We will continue to develop links with our Art X-UK partners across the UK over the next five years. Every year we will focus on three areas including one of the devolved nations to research and meet artists and acquire their work.
  • Consulting on the Collection: We held a series of workshops over 2020-21 with museum professionals and colleagues in the civil service, all with varied life experiences and backgrounds, to reappraise how artworks have been considered historically. We are now working with feedback from these workshops to inform how we write about our artworks as they go on display. Find out more about our interpretation.
  • Updating our cataloguing: We are exploring biases in the cataloguing of artworks and subjects in our database (Collection Management System), and identifying terms that uphold discriminatory language and practices, or may be absent altogether. We are talking to networks, such as the UK Museums Documentation Network and colleagues working in other museums and galleries on documentation and databases, allowing for wider ways to identify subjects and works of art.
  • Creating new learning resources: Since 2020, we have commissioned a set of online learning resources, ArtSpark, that presents broader viewpoints and reflections on works in the Collection. Aimed originally at younger age groups, these resources in fact offer everyone ways to engage with artworks. Watch out for new content on selected historical artworks in 2022.
  • Partnering for greater public access: We are working with local partners to encourage more interaction with the Collection from the public. In 2021, we worked with Coventry’s City of Culture programme to invite local groups to respond to selected works. The works were then displayed in the city’s shopping arcade as part of the Show Windows public art project.

What we have achieved

  • In 2015-16, prior to this project’s launch, we worked with researchers for Black Artists and Modernism (BAM, an Arts and Humanities Research Council project) on an audit of selected UK national collections to identify artworks by artists of African, Caribbean, Asian and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Region descent who were born in, lived, worked or studied in the UK. This gave us valuable baseline data on the collection.
  • In 2020, when the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic meant we couldn’t visit artists’ studios and galleries in person, we invited regional contemporary visual arts networks, and their counterparts in the devolved nations, to propose artists for the Collection. The Art X-UK acquisitions project presented us with the opportunity to work in partnership and foregrounded ideas of inclusive representation; we acquired 90 works by 45 artists from Ballygalley to Penwith. Most of these artists identified with groups who were underrepresented in the Collection.
  • Between 2012 and 2015, works by artists of African, Caribbean and Asian descent who were born in, lived, worked or studied in the UK comprised just under 3% of our acquisitions. A DeAI audit of GAC acquisitions of modern and contemporary works made between 2016-2019 however showed that this had gone up to almost a quarter of our acquisitions made in these years.
  • The number of artworks made by women in the collection stood at just 10.3% in 2018. Since 2018, however, artwork by made by women has comprised 47% of our acquisitions.
  • Our innovative partnership project, Ways of Seeing, with the first London Borough of Culture opened up works in the collection to the diverse communities of Waltham Forest. A community engagement programme and educational resources for teachers and schools helped draw in audiences. Targeted at those who do not habitually visit art museums, the exhibition saw 68 artworks by 35 artists displayed in 28 different spaces, of which 90% were not museum venues. In 2021 we worked in partnership with Coventry City of Culture’s Show Windows project.
  • Our Voices on Art project invited colleagues from the DCMS Black Asian and Minority Ethnic network to select and reflect on art works from the collection that resonated with them.

We are continuing to work collaboratively to ensure that we include opinions and voices from multiple perspectives in our programme and digital engagement going forward. We will continue to update our progress on The Representation of the People Project at regular intervals.