You Can Only See a Fraction of These Publicly Owned British Artworks

Parliament official says thousands of government-owned artworks belong in a gallery

Warhol Queen Portrait
Andy Warhol's portraits of Queen Elizabeth on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Several works from this series are hung in British embassies in the United States. STEFAN WERMUTH/Reuters/Corbis

British embassies and government offices around the world are adorned with paintings, prints and sculptures by British artists, including Andy Warhol, William Hogarth and Lucian Freud. The works are just a small fraction of the country's massive art collection that, though publicly owned, is largely kept from general viewing. Now, a Parliamentary official is calling for the British government to create a new, public gallery to showcase some of these artworks, John Bingham reports for the Telegraph.

“There are over 20,000 publicly-owned works of art that are not accessible to the majority of the public—that is not good enough,” Michael Dugher, the UK's Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, tells Bingham. “A small part of the Palace of Westminster should be put aside to become a free public art gallery.”

The Parliamentary and Government taxpayer-funded art collections hold a combined 22,000 artworks, which are intended to promote British art and cultural diplomacy. But only a few of the pieces can be viewed for a fee by tourists visiting the House of Parliament, Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News

If a public gallery was created, Dugher tells Bingham, "The works from the Parliamentary Art Collection and the Government Art Collection could then be rotated on a regular basis so that all art lovers, academics and art students would be able to access the historic collections."

Parliament officials setting aside taxpayer money for art is a touchy subject for some. While members of Parliament argue that it is important to support and showcase British artists, some criticized the government after a 2014 report revealed that British officials had spent about 250,000 pounds (approximately $366,000) in taxpayer money on official portraits over the course of two decades, James Edgar wrote for the Telegraph at the time.

The United Kingdom isn’t the only country to restrict access to a government-owned art collection. In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency also has a history of keeping information on its small collection of artworks close to the chest. (From what little information she could gather from research and requests to the CIA, artist Johanna Barron recreated the pieces for a recent art installation at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.) However, the CIA’s art collection is dwarfed by the British government's acquisitions.

Highlights from the Government Art Collection were shown to the public for the first time in its 113-year history in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery back in 2011, but that show was temporary. If Dugher can convince enough members of Parliament, his proposal would establish the first permanent, dedicated gallery to these collections, P.C. Robinson writes for ArtLyst.

“All these great works of art are publicly owned so it is only right that everyone, not just a privileged few, should have the opportunity to see and learn from them,” Dugher tells Bingham.

For now, the best way to see selections from these collections is to book a tour of Parliament or to view them online. The Government Art Collection also has an interactive map on its website showing every building around the world that houses works from its collection.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.