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Exclusive: Government has spent £1.5m on art for official buildings since start of pandemic

The spending has been branded “grotesque” and a “vanity project” amid plans to slash civil service jobs

The government has spent £1.5 million on art to hang inside government buildings since the start of the pandemic, The Big Issue can reveal.

Artworks purchased by the Government Art Collection since March 2020 include an £80,000 painting, a David Hockney print, a £178,000 fibreglass statue, and a limited edition tapestry by Grayson Perry, according to figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request by The Big Issue.

The spending has been slammed as a “vanity” project as the government plans sweeping civil service job cuts and the cost of living crisis grips the country, with prices skyrocketing and wages falling.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, said: “This is the very definition of a vanity project. That the government would prioritise spending money on art ahead of protecting jobs or giving civil servants a pay rise is grotesque.”

On plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs, Boris Johnson told staff: “We must ensure the cost of government is no greater than absolutely necessary to deliver for the people we serve.” And in a speech last week on the cost of living crisis he said: “It is time for the Government to stop spending, and to start cutting taxes and cutting regulation.”

Meanwhile, the Government Art Collection has been busily adding to its 14,000-strong stockpile. In February of this year, it purchased an £88,200 painting by British artist Jadé Fadojutimi and an £86,400 tapestry produced by Grayson Perry.

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Diana of Versailles, a fibreglass structure by Yikna Shonibare, was purchased for £178,500 in March 2021. It sits in the headquarters of the Government Art Collection, the Old Admiralty Building in central London.

The Government Art Collection is intended to “support cultural diplomacy” and promote British soft power, with pieces displayed in government buildings, embassies and consulates around the world.

Low-paid workers in government buildings have complained of poor conditions and a lack of respect, prompted by revelations in Sue Gray’s report.

One cleaner told The Big Issue he had worked at the Ministry of Justice for £9 an hour during the pandemic.

The £1.5 million spent on art would pay for a member of staff on £9 an hour to work continuously for almost 19 years.

From April 2019 to March 2020, the collection spent £437,000 on new art.

That figure increased by 70 per cent the following year, to £743,000, and then increased again from April 2021 to March 2022, hitting £783,000.

The most recent purchase was registered on March 31, with previous years also having little spending during April and May.

Works from the collection are not sold, with the collection as a whole not treated as a financial asset.

A small number of artworks were bought with funds from selling prints, while the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office provided a share of the money for some others.

Releasing the figures, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport said: “The Government Art Collection (GAC) promotes British art, culture and creativity through displays in UK Government buildings worldwide. It is the most widely distributed collection of British art, with displays in 129 countries, and makes an important contribution to the UK’s cultural diplomacy through being seen by thousands of visitors to these buildings each year.

“In 2021, the Government Art Collection was given additional funding to purchase works to increase the visibility of artists from Northern Ireland, to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland.

“In the same year, in response to Covid-19, the Collection acquired works by 45 contemporary visual artists from across the UK. The Art X-UK project celebrates the diversity of creativity around the country. New acquisitions continue to develop the diversity of representation within the Collection to reflect contemporary British society.”

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