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

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

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, habitually inscrutable and seemingly impervious when it comes to criticism of his conduct, has taken the rare, if not unprecedented, step of striking back, and, although he could easily command column inches in the national press, has chosen to do so in Varsity, student newspaper for Cambridge University, the alma mater where his interest veered from economics to art back in the swinging 1960s.


He takes exception to my comment, printed in 2005 in The Observer, that “Serota, as the director, chooses the trustees, and the trustees are then responsible for reappointing the director. The director then buys the trustees’ work … Basically the Tate are appointing their own bosses.” He says definitively, “I don’t have any part to play in their appointment.”

In that case I would like to know why The Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery Annual Accounts 2007-2008 (“ordered by the House of Commons to be printed”) says in the section on trustees: “The key stages of the appointment are overseen by a panel, which will normally include the Director”.

It would also be interesting to hear how he explains the September 2005 Tate board minutes, which state: “The Director reported that two strong candidates were to be interviewed for the position of Artist Trustee by a panel comprising himself, Paul Myners and the Independent Assessor, Jan Hall.”

More recently, in the May 2007 minutes, another trustee interview is recorded as having a panel of three trustees, the independent assessor and Serota “in an advisory capacity”. (Presumably his advice was that his advice should be ignored in order for him not to play any part.) I assume he would not suggest that Tate Chairman, Paul Myners – or Lord Myners as we should now call him – has signed off incorrect statements in the minutes about such matters.

Stuckist Turner Prize demonstration, 29 September 2008. Video stills: Rick Friend.

Serota’s brazen denial of the facts brings to mind the application he made in 2004 to the Art Fund for a grant towards the purchase of Tate trustee Chris Ofili’s work The Upper Room, when he signed a statement that the Tate had made no commitment to the work (a condition of the grant), whereas in fact eight months previously the Tate had paid an instalment of £250,000 towards it. Serota’s explanation was that he had had “a failing in his head”. He seems prone to a recurrent state of rose-tinted self-delusion, which he believes we will all share, if he communicates it sincerely enough. This would explain why he attempts to refute my analysis of his relationship with the trustees by asking wide-eyed, “Why would I want to win their support?”

The answer seems stupefyingly obvious to me. He would want to win their support, because they are his employer. As a result of his having won their support, he was appointed in 1988 for a seven year term, which was renewed in 1995 and 2002, and then this year determined by them to be a permanent post because of changes in employment law – an interpretation questioned on both legal and ethical grounds by lawyer and Stuckist artist, Leo Goatley, who has written to the Culture Minister to express his concerns. Or perhaps Serota means he doesn’t need to want to win their support, as he takes it for granted.

Artist trustees were originally senior figures with established careers, such as Antony Caro, but after 10 years in office, Serota came to this conclusion: “Tony was well over 60 when he became a trustee. He was a very effective trustee, actually. He cared passionately about certain things and was a powerful force… but it just seems to work better when you have artists who are a new generation, or indeed erring on the younger side, really.”

For someone who doesn’t have any part to play in trustees’ appointment, he speaks with remarkable confidence and authority on the sort of trustees he prefers. One starts to feel he may have quite a significant part to play after all. If Caro was “a very effective trustee”, in what way exactly does it “work better” with artists “erring on the younger side”? Logically the conclusion must be that it works better if they are less effective.

Being in mid-career, they have much to gain from the Tate’s acquisition and display of their work, with Serota a dominating factor in such decisions – making him someone whom it is not in their interest to upset, and creating an unhealthy conflict of interest, when it comes to their overseeing of his role.

Serota is quite clear about the power he wields, as he explained in The Independent on Sunday in 1993: “Clearly, I have to be aware of the fact that if I decide to make a show of an artist at the Tate, this will influence the way people regard him or her.” Indeed.

He has a vigorous, if somewhat sycophantic, riposte to any censure: “people are falling over themselves to buy Chris Ofili’s work and Peter Doig’s work. The issue is not, ‘Is the Tate doing this to curry favour with them?’ but, actually, ‘Can the Tate get hold of the work?’ ” This may have some truth in 2008, but between 1998 and 2004, according to art insurer Hiscox, Ofili’s auction prices fell by 24%. An Ofili work sold in 2001 for £117,038, which remained his record until 2005, just before the announcement of the Tate’s purchase of its then-trustee Ofili’s The Upper Room (by which time knowledge of it would have permeated the artworld). Suddenly Ofili’s auction price shot up to £554,258.

On 14 November 2006, a Peter Doig painting with an upper estimate of £1.5 million sold at Sotheby’s for only £445,000. On 5 February 2007, (former Tate trustee) Doig’s major retrospective exhibition opened at Tate Britain. On 7 February 2007, a Doig painting sold at Sotheby’s for £5,732,000.

Serota now says: “Chris Ofili sold us The Upper Room at a price way below what he could have achieved elsewhere… Many works by Ofili had sold for higher prices at auction.” If this is the case, why in June 2003 did Serota say, “Of course the price will have to come down”, and, furthermore, even though the price didn’t come down, why did he go ahead and purchase it regardless?

His excuse for what the Charity Commission concluded was the breaking of charity law over the Ofili purchase is that “we had been following a practice which had been running for fifty years,” and, as The Guardian pointed out, “Extraordinarily, at no point was the Tate’s breach of law picked up by any present or former Tate director or trustee, or by the museum’s major funder and regulator, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It went unnoticed by current trustees with an expertise in regulatory affairs including Sir Howard Davies, former chair of the Financial Services Authority, and Paul Myners, chair of Marks & Spencer and the Guardian Media Group.”

Equally extraordinarily, it took me ten minutes on the Charity Commission web site to find out. But then I was not living in an ivory tower of institutional malpractice fostered by an executive without objective scrutiny under an inbred governance lacking rigorous accountability because of political oversight enacting an arms-length policy to avoid getting its hands dirty.

Serota assures us, though, that all is well: “We’re a more open organization than any equivalent organization in the world. Can you find the minutes of the trustees’ meeting of the Museum of Modern Art on their website, or the Pompidou? You can’t. So we’re at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can.”

The logic is decidedly wonky, but then so is the message we are meant to agree with. When I first looked at the Tate trustee minutes online, I noticed an odd discrepancy between them and material I had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. I wrote to Tate Chairman, Paul Myners, to query this, and he admitted there were two versions of the minutes – the real ones and the ones on the web site that were “considered appropriate for immediate public disclosure.”

Following my complaint, the Tate then indicated in the online minutes where they were censoring any items that were “confidential or commercially sensitive.” Here is an example of such an excised, and consequently garbled, passage from the July 2003 minutes, regarding the Ofili purchase:

“Jon Snow wondered whether Information has been exempted under s. 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. to enable the acquisition reflected the considerable interest.”

However, I had already been supplied with a less excised version, so we can see exactly the sort of thing the Tate considers is not appropriate for public disclosure:

“Jon Snow wondered whether [X’s] withdrawal reflected a change in the market value of the group, but Nicholas Serota assured him that this was not the case: that Victoria Miro had secured a group of benefactors, including [Y] to enable the acquisition reflected the considerable interest.”

We are not allowed to know that Jon Snow questioned the value of The Upper Room, and that Serota immediately resolved the objection with a convolved rationale that rested on the fact that Victoria Miro – the gallery owner who was trying to sell the work to the Tate – had persuaded some collectors to give money to the Tate, so the Tate could give it back to her.

This is doubly embarrassing, as only the previous month Serota had been insisting that the price had to come down. There is no reason for this part of the minutes to be redacted under section 43 (2), which applies to trade secrets or commercially prejudicial material, and it is not permitted to withhold material under the Freedom of Information Act simply because it’s embarrassing, so the explanation for the redaction would be another interesting one to add to the lengthening list.

“The Stuckists Punk Victorian”, Walker Art Gallery, 2004 Liverpool Biennial.

Here’s another passage that was initially omitted from the minutes:

“Mr Debbaut explained that the Stuckists had offered a large number of works to Tate (some, but it was not clear all, as gifts) following an exhibition held at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. Curators and the Collection Committee had recommended against accepting the gift. The Trustees were advised that there may be some media coverage of the Stuckists’ likely negative reaction to this decision.”

I don’t see anything confidential or commercially sensitive about that either. My observation of the Tate is that they divulge only what they know they will have to anyway, now that the Freedom of Information Act is in force, and make a virtue out of a necessity. In February this year, the press reported the Tate’s purchase of The Chapman Family Collection, an installation by Jake and Dinos Chapman, but the Tate refused at the time to divulge the cost. That doesn’t count in my book as the forefront of being open. The price was published sometime later, buried in the Tate’s boring annual accounts, which no one bothers to read. The price of the work was £1,500,000, which netted its original owner, Charles Saatchi, a cool £500,000 profit out of the Tate on (what was reported as) his original purchase price. No wonder the Tate kept schtum.

I don’t know why Serota considers himself hard done by at the hands of the press: “You can’t have it both ways; on the one hand we’re criticised for not having bought Rachel Whiteread’s house or Damien Hirst’s shark, and then when we do go out and buy a Chris Ofili or a Peter Doig, we’re also criticised.” It seems to have escaped his earnestly pained attention that Ofili and Doig were trustees, and Whiteread and Hirst weren’t. This is a difference that other people, including the Charity Commission, see as being of considerable significance.

Finally we come to the culprits: “I’m not alone in this. They bang on about the Tate not doing so, but there are plenty of other museums in this country who could be buying [the Stuckists’] work, but aren’t.” What have other museums in the country got to do with it? And what’s this “buying” business? We weren’t trying to sell work to the Tate: we offered a donation of 160 paintings (all of which were rejected, some just because of their titles presumably, as they hadn’t even been looked at). I don’t know what other museums’ policies are, but according to Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar, “If you want a comprehensive overview of art made in Britain or art made about Britain, Tate Britain is the place. We have almost limitless capacity in the years ahead to explore British art.”

What a load of hogwash, and how peculiar that Serota is reduced to vindicating his own behaviour as director of the national gallery of modern and British art by pointing to provincial museums, which, if anything, follow the lead of the Tate. As it happens, a national museum, The Walker Art Gallery, mounted a major five month show of Stuckist work for the 2004 Liverpool Biennial, which Serota knows full well, as he visited it. Alexis Hunter has just emailed me indignantly with a list of 25 museums and suchlike institutions which hold her work, ranging from the University of Houston to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (but not the Tate).

Finally we reach Serota’s clinching argument: “I don’t know where this idea that I don’t like figurative painting has emerged from because frankly if you look at the work that we’ve acquired, I’ve quite frequently shown artists who work in a figurative fashion… Some of my best friends are figurative painters!” Well, frankly I couldn’t give a monkey’s who his friends are, nor for that matter what he does or doesn’t like. I’m rather more concerned with his acquisitions policy, as examined in Stuck Inn V, with which I rest my case.

Varsity interview, 3.10.08
Stuck Inn V Part I

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: Friday, October 10th, 2008.