Pictures for politicians

The Government Art Collection, for so long shrouded in mystery, is slowly opening up to the public

Tucked away in a cul-de-sac off the Tottenham Court Road in central London lies the inconspicuous headquarters of the Government Art Collection (GAC). The GAC has long been shrouded in mystery, its precise location not stated on its website and with entry by prior arrangement only. That its existence is a secret is vehemently disputed by a former chair, John Tusa, as a "tiresome and ignorant journalists' cliché". Yet, for such a vast collection owned by the nation, the citizens of this country remain quite unaware of the impressive artistic inventory to which it contributes each year. Its director, Penny Johnson, is keen to dispel the clandestine image, not least because, as arts funding comes under greater scrutiny, the GAC must demonstrate that it provides a public service for the £551,000 that it receives annually from the government.

In the past year access has widened considerably and fortnightly tours have been broadened to cater for interested individuals as well as arts organisations. In May, for the first time ever, the GAC's participation in Museums and Galleries Month was publicised in the national press and as a result the 50-minute tours were booked up within the day. We fortunate 250 who gained entry one Saturday last month were given the rare opportunity to glimpse a scintilla of the art that adorns the offices of British statesmen around the world. At any one time, between 70 and 75 per cent of the 13,000 items in the collection are on display along the corridors of power, from Whitehall to the residences of diplomats abroad. Whilst these are designated as public spaces, they are ones to which most of us seldom gain access. The remaining works are stored on the GAC premises, which operate as a depot, fielding art from one location to another, and storing and conserving it in transit.

Our tour began in the viewing area where each group, upon entry, confronted a fine S Lowry - Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1946), lately returned from The Lowry in Salford, to which it had been lent for exhibition. It will soon be whisked away to the office of Andy Burnham, Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport: a suitable match, as it depicts the county of Burnham's constituency. Previously, having been acquired by the GAC more than 60 years ago, it hung in the office of Estelle Morris when she served as minister for the arts.

Visiting the collection is endlessly fascinating, not for the pedigree of its pictures, which is easily surpassed by our national galleries, but for the individual history of each artwork. Johnson reinforces old stereotypes of Labour as the party of progress when she recounts the changes in taste at Downing Street. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson selected many contemporary and abstract works for No 10, which were then expelled by Ted Heath, who shared Margaret Thatcher's later proclivity for more traditional kinds of art. In 1997 modern art returned to government buildings with the Labour Party, and David Hockney and Peter Blake made their appearance on the walls of Downing Street. Whether or not David Cameron would buck this trend remains to be seen. Of recent government ministers, Peter Mandelson sprang to the director's mind as her most cultured political customer; ambassadors were generally commended.

At the GAC we were shown Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician - a large (7ft by 2ft) etching teeming with social clusters, including romantics, realists, anarchists, snobs, fundamentalists and classicists. Perry has expressed the hope that it will help temper politicians' prejudices. This, too, is destined for Burnham's office. Clearly the Culture Secretary gets the pick of the bunch.

Illustrating the collection's commitment to balancing modern purchases with older works, Johnson guided us towards some of the more recent acquisitions. William Powell Frith's The Crossing Sweeper (1893) depicts late-Victorian London in oils and was bought at Christie's last year for £26,400 - a not insignificant portion of the GAC's £220,000 annual acquisition budget. The tour itself defies chronological or thematic display; we descended from the viewing area to the racking area, moving on to the receive/despatch room and then the workshop. The works on show or pulled from the racks for our inspection captured the variety of the collection within the framework of promoting British art and history. We learned of the criteria the GAC uses to advise its clients on what to select. "Cultural diplomacy" is a fundamental tenet in decorating embassies. Thus Thomas Phillips's iconic 1814 portrait of Lord Byron clad in Albanian costume was available to view, having returned from its natural home at the British embassy in Athens.

The contents of the GAC date from the 16th century to the present day, a sweep that makes this government collection unique. Now, the GAC has awakened to the need to make its existence known to those with no business to attend to in the 450 public offices that it decorates.

Johnson expressed enthusiasm for the idea of running each artwork with a travel guide detailing its movements since acquisition. The GAC also hopes to curate a public exhibition, touring across the UK soon, for which it would tempor arily recall its best works from ministries around the world. Budgets may slow things down but access is gradually growing wider. In the meantime I would advise you to book yourself on to a regular Wednesday evening tour, though what's available to view will have changed as pictures move around. The GAC is a pleasing instance of the lip service paid by politicians to public access shedding light on a hitherto murky, if laudable, corner of government expenditure.

The Government Art Collection offers evening tours for groups of between ten and 20 people three times a month. For bookings call 020 7580 9120, or visit www.gac.culture.gov.uk