One of the most recognisable images of Northern Ireland is Parliament Buildings, dominating the busy Stormont Estate with the Castle set to the side, retaining an element of mystery.
But the collection that is housed within these buildings and the offices of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) remains less well known, a situation that is being transformed through the activities of those in charge of the NICS art collection. Through a partnership with Art UK, the entire collection will be available to view online later this year.
the collection acts as a record of the built environment and the landscape as well as various traditions and ways of life
This is no small venture, as the collection numbers over 1,800 works, making it one of the most extensive and significant publicly owned fine art collections in Northern Ireland. In many ways, its history and ambitions represent an ideal in terms of building a public collection and how it can be best used, notably providing access to art in all aspects of daily life, from the working environment to a community space.
Instigated by Prime Minister Terence O'Neill in 1963, with the initial ambition to provide works of art to decorate the offices of NICS staff and the public spaces of its buildings, it has also provided crucial support for many contemporary artists and arts organisations during the past 60 years.
Works have been purchased from a range of galleries and exhibitions throughout Northern Ireland, including the Royal Ulster Academy annual exhibitions, often acquiring a number of works from the wide range of contemporary works shown. Prioritising and encouraging contemporary art in Northern Ireland has also led to the collection acquiring works directly from students and graduates at the annual degree show held by Ulster University as well as an open submission competition.
Building the collection predominantly from contemporary pieces in recent years has subsequently provided it with a distinct and fascinating perspective on the history of art in Northern Ireland. Many artists originally collected early in their careers have subsequently achieved recognition and the collection provides a remarkably thorough guide to a history of art in Northern Ireland.
There are significant works by major twentieth-century Irish artists who would have been established when their work was acquired, such as William Conor, James Humbert Craig, Colin Middleton, Arthur Armstrong, Tom Carr and T. P. Flanagan.
There are also works by a number of notable contemporary painters such as Colin Davidson, Darren Murray and Colin Watson.
In addition to providing an extensive record of art in Ulster during the last 60 years, the diversity of subjects within the NICS collection reflect many aspects of life here, ensuring the collection has a broad public appeal and resonance. During a period of great change, the collection acts as a record of the built environment and the landscape as well as various traditions and ways of life.
The aspiration towards cooperation and positive relations is demonstrated by the acquisition, in general, of works which are non-political and also by the emphasis on making the collection accessible to as many people and communities as possible.
This is achieved through displaying work in public spaces such as libraries, as well as an ongoing partnership with the Office of Public Works that has taken the shape of an annual exhibition selected from each collection in alternate years. This exhibition tours to venues across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The collection is an enthusiastic lender to many exhibitions, such as 'A Portrait of Northern Ireland', held in 2021 to mark a hundred years of art, and to public buildings including Hillsborough Castle and Belfast City Hall.
Through these projects, many people will have seen works from the NICS collection who might not previously have known of its existence and there are other projects designed to engage directly and innovatively with the public.
As part of the 2022 Belfast Photo Festival the Department of Finance worked with Swiss-based graffiti artist Saype, in association with the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK, to create a vast image of intertwined hands spraypainted onto an area of grass at the front of Parliament Buildings in Stormont Estate. The image, which was made using biodegradable materials and was only fully visible from above, was intended to symbolise 'friendship, dialogue and solidarity'.
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The artwork provided a fascinating resonance with another sculpture located within the grounds of Stormont Estate, Josefina de Vasconcellos' Reconciliation (1977), also known as The Peace Monument, which depicts a man and woman embracing across barbed wire.
One exhibition to look out for in 2023 is the first retrospective exhibition of Belfast-based artist Catherine McWilliams to be held at the F. E. McWilliam Gallery in 2023. The NICS collection has several works by McWilliams, including paintings from the series of paintings of school dinner ladies that were a commission from Unison.
Part of a notable Belfast artistic family, the NICS collection also holds work by Catherine's husband, the late Joseph McWilliams and their son, Simon.
Works from the NICS collection are being added regularly to the Art UK website so that the entire collection should be accessible by the end of 2023.
Dickon Hall, art historian and Art UK Content Commissioner, Northern Ireland
This article was supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland