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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 address colonialism and racist tropes in artworks in the Collection, and contribute to the broader discussions around decolonising the curriculum.
  • 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 will move from temporary accommodation into a space in central London opening again to the public for behind-the-scenes tours from 2021. Our public programme will go beyond London, working with partners across the UK and with localised engagement such as our ‘Ways of Seeing’ project with Waltham Forest Borough of Culture.

We will be working with a group of Critical Friends to ensure we include opinions and voices from the protected characteristics in our programme and digital engagement. We are starting a staff reading group internally to take time to learn more together.

We know we have a long way to go and we endeavour to make the process transparent by making our research available. We will review this statement in June 2021 and update it with new commitments and actions highlighting findings and changes, and areas that we still need to develop.

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 continues to evolve in a manner that remains wholly representative to all audiences.