Jamie Doward and Cal Flyn, 'Online gallery will open forgotten art to public view' (The Observer, 18/04/2010)

Less than a fifth of all works owned by the national body set up to make art accessible to the public are currently on display, it has emerged amid plans to raise their profile in cyberspace.

The 7,547 works owned by the Arts Council England Collection, set up to provide financial support to struggling British artists following the second world war and loaned to public institutions, include important works by Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst and David Hockney.

The collection boasts on its website that it has the “largest loan collection of modern and contemporary British art in the world” and is “the most widely circulated of all of Britain’s national collections”.

But according to figures deposited in the House of Commons library last week, only 1,338 of the collection’s works were displayed in public in the past year. A total of 2,532 have been on show in the past three years.

The cost of storing the unseen works came to almost £330,000 last year, a figure that is likely to prompt questions about why many are kept in warehouses, some for years on end. But art experts point out that it is common for about 80% of collections to be in storage at any one time.

With no museum of its own, the collection’s works are loaned out to galleries and public spaces across Britain, a practice that means many works have to be warehoused until requested.

Now, however, in a pioneering move, the council is to create an online gallery so its collection can be viewed in its entirety for the first time, something that is likely to trigger a surge in demand from public bodies keen to borrow them.

So far, almost all of the 1,500 paintings in the collection have been digitised. “I would hope that by next year all paintings, prints and works on paper will be online,” said Caroline Douglas, head of the collection. Photographic and sculpture works will follow later.

A collaboration with the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, the charity that aims to photograph and record all of the UK’s paintings, will also see the collection promoted in a separate online initiative. It means that important works not on display, such as Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging, Sarah Lucas’s Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, Anish Kapoor’s White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers, and Bacon’s Head VI, will be permanently accessible to the public through the collection’s online library.

The creation of the online gallery, which often involves complex negotiations with the artists and their estates over copyright, represents a chance for the collection to fulfil its earliest ideals. Formed in 1946 to support emerging artists and to encourage the popular appreciation of modern art, the collection represented an attempt to use culture as a transformational force.

“The collection was created in an incredibly democratic spirit,” Douglas said. “The aim was to make British art available to people in the dark postwar era. One key way to support artists was to buy their work and show it.”

The collection’s support for artists at the start of their career can make their names, and its 10-strong team have proved adept at spotting rising stars and identifying important trends.

“For the artist, having our imprimatur is a huge boost,” Douglas said, acknowledging that the collection is historically important as a mirror to a changing society. “We buy their work early on at a good price and then keep it for ever. Art reflects us back to ourselves. It shows us who we are.”

Several of Bacon’s works, bought by the collection for as little as £500 each, are now worth tens of millions of pounds. The Hirsts are also considered an astute buy. One Hirst work, He tried to internalize everything, which has not been on display since 2006, is considered particularly valuable. A simple sketch of the installation piece by Hirst went for $70,000 at auction at Christie’s in New York.

Other works by celebrated “Brit Pack” artists include Tracey Emin’s The Simple Truth and Angus Fairhurst’s When I woke up in the morning the feeling was still there.

Recent acquisitions include two paintings by the noted Scottish author and artist Alasdair Gray, and several studies by Bridget Riley that are on display in Birmingham and are drawing large crowds.

Under the collection’s loan scheme, public institutions such as schools and hospitals, as well as even the smallest of galleries, can borrow its works providing that they can give assurances about their safe-keeping.

A small number of works are also lent to overseas galleries putting on major exhibitions, while many items in the collection go out on tour across the UK. A Lucian Freud Small Head portrait is currently on display at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, while Gilbert and George’s Gordon’s makes us drunk will be at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry in May.

“Places that can’t afford an art collection can borrow from us,” Douglas said. “Ninety per cent of requests are agreed. We’re the collection that reaches parts other collections can’t.”

The collection has become a victim of its own success. Its growth over the years has meant that works not on display can no longer be housed in one space and now have to be stored in special warehouses in London and Yorkshire.

But Douglas said she hoped the new online initiatives would raise awareness about the collection and result in fewer of its works remaining in storage for long periods at time, adding: “I hope this will generate more interest in borrowing the works – that would be great.”