Government Buys Art – No Men Allowed

The UK government has some unusual organisations and activities within its seemingly endless boundaries, and one is the Government Art Collection (GAC), which buys art for British government  buildings around the world.

According to the iNews, the collection “which holds 14,000 works by influential British artists from Turner to Tracey Emin, has said it is only buying works from female artists to correct an “institutional” male bias”.

That is to redress the current balance of existing artworks in the collection - figures calculated by the Labour Party suggested that around 265 works by men and just 80 by women were added to the collection, either by purchases or donations, between 2011 and 2016.

Penny Johnson, director of the GAC, said the collection, first established in 1989, has historically been male-biased. “That’s why we are marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (which gave some women the vote) by only buying female artists this year.”

The historical bias is not a huge shock. More men than women created art for most of the last few hundred years, we suspect, so it is not surprising that the collection reflects that. But there seems no reason why women can’t create great art – in my opinion, it is almost certainly social factors, not inherent “male” ability, that mean the greatest artists of all time (as assessed by those who know) are almost all men.

However, this decision does raise some interesting wider points for “procurement” in a more conventional sense. Maybe every purchase this year will be female, but going forward, should the GAC decision makers be prepared to pay more for a piece of art because its creator does not have a Y chromosome? Or if one painting is judged to be slightly “better” than the other, at the same price, but the inferior work is by a female artist, will that be the choice for the buyers?

It is the same discussion we have at times in the context of supporting SMEs (smaller businesses), or social enterprises, or minority owned firms, in more conventional procurement situations.  Are we prepared to forsake a certain amount of “value” to support a policy goal (such as supporting female artists) through procurement actions?

In recent years, the concept of “social value” has come into play. This is really an attempt to codify the value from these other factors and allow buyers to take them into account in procurement decisions. Most of us I suspect support the idea in concept – as long as it is proportionate. However, in practical terms, there are still issues to be resolved, not least how you really track and measure delivery of some of the “social value” that suppliers are offering in their bids. The Social Value Portal has done good work in this area; but it is still early days in terms of establishing and embedding best practice.

So, the Committee need to give some thought to their objective here. It sounds like this might be a blanket “ban” on male artists for a year – is that sensible? Even if a great opportunity presented itself? Moving forward, should they have a quota for female artists? Or just a preference if all else is equal in the decision? Will there be some “scoring” that quantifies just how much favouritism can be shown?

One final point. As soon as you move away from totally objective criteria, such as price, then there is an increased danger of corruption (at the extreme) or subjective bias coming into the process. That’s because you can justify a procurement decision based on factors that can’t easily be challenged. The same applies here – we don’t want to see second-rate art bought from a “female friend of a friend” for dubious reasons, with the excuse based on the sex of the artist!

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Voices (5)

  1. RJ:

    I can see the point of this in the very specific context of both art and the centenary mentioned above. Seeing as (i) the purchase value of art is in itself a completely subjective matter and (ii) I’m not sure that many artists would be targeting the government as their core market I would have thought the risk of procurement challenge would be low (unless there were some kind of OJEU involved in buying artworks to fit out a government building?).
    However, this does beg the wider question as to whether the SME agenda might end up being broadened as in the USA where minority-owned, female-owned and veteran-owned businesses also feature in quota systems. It’s a perennial debate as to how and to what extent public sector buyers should balance the appropriate use of taxpayers’ money with the desire to encourage certain market sectors. I am very wary of targets, rules or regulations relating to actual expenditure and in the Department where I have been working until recently we were actually striving more to measure the opportunities we were offering to SMEs to bid as well as the number of bids submitted, in preference to the value of awards actually made. Given the strictures in the public sector about transparent evaluation criteria it’s surely more important that the public sector is open for such businesses and, if they’re good enough and capable of handling the capacity, they will win business.

    1. Secret Squirrel:

      “to how and to what extent public sector buyers should balance the appropriate use of taxpayers’ money with the desire to encourage certain market sectors”

      There’s a broader question of using taxpayer’s money for this at all when there is a deficit….

      1. RJ:

        Point well made, SS, and to an extent I was trying to say something similar. Whilst there’s an argument that encouraging the SME sector (and possibly other minority interests) benefits the economy as a whole by driving growth, i personally think it’s more important that we encourage genuine equality of opportunities and balance this with the best solution for the job in hand.

  2. Diane Leonard:

    Some of the world’s greatest artists are Women! there are so many undiscovered female artists who have the skills and passion to warrant being shown in the world’s museums. Gender should not necessarily be the reason for the purchase of a painting, rather the quality and feeling of the artwork. I, myself, have been passed over for collections because I am a female. I have worked very hard over the past forty years to get my paintings noticed and collected. And, I am proud to say that my work is collected all over the world by people who love my light and colors!

    It’s time for the world to recognize that there is no reason to think of men as better painters, but rather look at the paintings themselves for what they bring to the viewer. Each painting has its own universal language and speaks to the audience in its own light.

    I welcome the gender equality of art! Art is meant to be admired and loved — no matter who painted it.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Well put Diane. I suspect historically (and maybe even very recently) there were many brilliant female artists who did not get the recognition they deserved, or who were told that serious art was for men. There are parallels with catering, where women were expected to be the domestic cooks yet all the Michelin starred chefs were men! That is changing slowly but it was crazy really when you think about it. My daughter is a neuroscientist and while we don’t fully understand how the brain works, it is clear that much traditional thinking about “the male brain / the female brain” is complete nonsense. In areas like art the past success of men is almost certainly because of social / economic / political factors rather than inherent aptitude and skill. (And assuming I have found the right person, your own work is beautiful).

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