Representation of the People Project 2018-28

In 2015-16 we worked with researchers for Black Artists and Modernism (BAM, an AHRC project) on an audit of selected UK national collections to identify artworks by artists of African, Caribbean, Asian and MENA Region descent who were born in, lived, worked or studied in the UK. In 2018 we initiated a ten-year plan to explore representation in the Collection. This was instigated by our work with BAM and a commitment that year to only collect artworks by women to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act (1918). In recognition that it took a further decade for women to get equitable voting rights, we set ourselves a ten-year target to work towards a full assessment (and subsequent actions) on representation in the collection in areas of age, disability, gender, race, sexuality, and socio-economic.

What are we doing?

  • We are working with the Decolonising the Arts Institute (DeAI, University of the Arts London) and other collections, collaborating and contributing to important research, and assessing policy and procedures that will inform tangible anti-racist actions.
  • Identifying historic prejudices in the way that artworks and subjects have been catalogued within the database (Collection Management System), that uphold discriminatory language and practice.
  • Reviewing interpretation about artworks and reappraising how they have been considered historically.*
  • Commissioning new learning resources that explore broader aspects of representation in the Collection.
  • We look to continually develop the diversity of representation within the Collection to reflect contemporary British society through acquisitions. A DeAI audit report based on acquisitions made 2016-2019 (where the works are dated 1900-2019) show that 24.44% of works acquired in that period were by artists of African, Caribbean, Asian and MENA Region descent who were born in, lived, worked or studied in the UK (and 21.38% artists). This compares to 2.66% of acquisitions in the 3 year period prior (2012-2015).

*If you have any questions or information about artworks or artists that you would wish to share, please contact us.

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. The discrepancy between artistic agency/viewpoint, subject matter and acquisition choice starkly indicates 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 will do next
In 2020 the Government Art Collection moved from temporary accommodation into a space in central London, opening again to the public for behind-the-scenes tours from 2022. Our public programme will go beyond London working with partners and communities across the UK. We recently worked with Waltham Forest Borough of Culture for the ‘Ways of Seeing’ project showing artworks in non-museum public spaces, and are now working on projects in Coventry, as part of the City of Culture programme.

We are working with a group of Critical Friends to ensure there are opinions and voices from multiple perspectives in our programme and digital engagement. Internally, all staff meet once a month to discuss issues of representation together. Recent meetings included a discussion on Akala’s book, Natives; and a discussion led by Amani Saeed, Anti-Racism Programme Lead at DCMS. We are currently reviewing and evaluating our work to develop clear objectives and commitments around our Representation of the People project. We will continue to identify areas we need to change or nurture and to highlight our findings and changes going forward.

We acknowledge that these actions are part of a longer process of learning and dialogue, and we are committed to making change so that the Collection evolves in a manner that is wholly representative to all audiences.