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Stuck Inn V: What Is Wrong with Sir Nicholas Serota?

By Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists art group.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, is determined to avoid the mistake made in the past at the gallery. That mistake is now widely accepted as self-evident, namely that directors during the 20th century, faced with the choice of opposing factions in art, made the wrong choice and have left the Tate with gaping, and now unfillable, holes in its collection.

James Bolivar Manson, appointed director in 1930, fervently plugged Impressionism and turned up his nose at anything after, including German Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism, rejecting also donations of work by Roger Fry, William Coldstream and Henry Moore, who would enter the gallery “over my dead body”.

His successor in 1938, Sir John Rothenstein, was in post for 26 years, until 1964 (a longevity which will doubtless be exceeded by Sir Nicholas Serota, now that he is effectively director for life). While Alfred Barr was stuffing the storerooms of the Museum of Modern Art in New York with iconic Modernist works, Rothenstein, who didn’t like continental art, was turning down the chance to purchase Matisse’s Red Studio for £800 whilst making sure that the Tate had an adequate representation of Augustus John.

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The mistake is not that they made the wrong choice. The mistake is that they made a choice at all. It is the prerogative of the private collector, investing their own money, to bet on a favourite horse. Where public money is concerned, the required role is neutrality and objectivity, necessitating an acquisitions policy to represent the whole field of contemporary practice. This is particularly the case in a time of polarised debate. Manson and Rothenstein gambled on their convictions. Serota is doing exactly the same thing.

His horse is “new media”. The purpose of the planned £215 million Tate Modern extension, he declared in 2005, is to “provide new kinds of display space for media such as photography, film, video and digital art”. There will also be room for installations and performances. If you think there’s something missing from the list, it is because, “visual culture is so much more complex than painting or sculpture”. In 2005, I analysed the recent acquisitions shown on the Tate site for artists born since 1945. 50% were installations and only 4% were paintings. This is not at all representative of contemporary practice. Observation of art exhibitions throughout the country shows the percentages should be reversed.

In the Tate – “new media”

Serota’s rationale is in his 2000 Dimbleby Lecture: “For the late twentieth-century museum director there is no more certain prospect for audience acclaim and sponsor success than those Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists who were so reviled a century earlier.” His identification with artists who were battling in the face of disapproval from the art establishment is a completely false analogy: the art that Serota promotes is the art establishment – a multi-million pound industry of museums, arts bodies, galleries, curators, auction houses, collectors and critics. It’s just that the art establishment is now at odds with the general public instead of synonymous with it.

However, by 2005 he expresses a surprising confidence: “Public interest in all aspects of visual culture is greater than ever before, particularly for new media such as photography, video and digital art.” I suppose that’s true: a survey featured on the BBC2 Culture Show revealed that public interest in new media has now soared to a hitherto undreamt of whopping 2.8% of the population. Serota has said, “I think that as a public servant I should be here at the service of the public.” In that case, he should take a look at the aspects of visual culture the public do have an interest in. The first names that spring to mind are Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano.

Not in the Tate – figurative paintings

They are the popularist end of the figurative painting spectrum, as much of which as possible Serota excludes from the canon, regardless of its nature. Gallery owner Angela Flowers considers it outrageous that he will not acquire work by artists such as John Keane on the grounds that it is not sufficiently “cutting edge”. The “modern traditional” painting of the FBA (Federation of British Artists), based at the Mall Galleries, encompasses nine art societies with 614 artist members and over 10,000 others submitting to open exhibitions. Leading practitioners such as Ken Howard, William Bowyer and Fred Cuming have not one work in the Tate collection. The Brotherhood of Ruralists (founded with Sir Peter Blake, who is no longer a member) fare little better with one print and one painting by David Inshaw acquired in 1980 and 34 prints by Graham Ovenden acquired in 1975, but not one painting in the collection.

Stuart Pearson-Wright is not there, nor even Jenny Saville, painter of gigantic nude women and part of the YBA-Saatchi Sensation exhibition. There is nothing by Billy Childish, despite his influence on Tracey Emin, nor by Stella Vine, who has certainly achieved prominence. In 2005, Serota turned down a donation of 160 paintings by the Stuckists, exhibited in the Walker Art Gallery, on the basis they lacked “accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought”, while simultaneously stating the Tate Archive would acquire material from Stuckist events and demonstrations to represent “the contribution of the Stuckist movement to debates about contemporary art.” The Tate now possesses a postcard of my image of Serota behind a large pair or red knickers, having turned down the offer of the original painting.

“Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision” by Charles Thomson

The artists and groups I have mentioned are all known entities and represent distinct approaches to contemporary art. This, and not a personal judgement as to their artistic merit should be the criterion. Whatever status the future assigns to them, they will nevertheless still have a niche in history. It is the Tate’s duty to preserve a record of that. Serota, with breathtaking egocentricity – just like J.B. Manson – obviously considers that the future will have an interest only in what he is interested in. If history is anything to go by, that is just what it will not do.

This column originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of The Jackdaw.

Stuck Inn V: What is Wrong With Sir Nicholas Serota? Part II

Charles Thomson
was the only person in 10 years to fail the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art. In 1979, he was a founder member of The Medway Poets, and then a full-time poet for 13 years, with work in over 100 anthologies. In 1999 he named, co-founded and has since been the driving force of the Stuckism movement, which now numbers more than 150 groups in 38 countries. He has demonstrated for 7 years outside the Turner Prize, and in 2005 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for Tate trustee minutes about the gallery’s purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work. This led in 2006 to the Charity Commission’s ruling that the Tate had been acting illegally for the last 50 years. His painting satirising Sir Nicholas Serota, whose face peers over a large pair of (Tracey Emin’s) red knickers, is a well-known image. He was briefly married to artist Stella Vine in 2001.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 6th, 2008.