Chris Ofili's relationship to the Tate is part of a benign, not a vicious, circle of valueby Emma Crichton-Miller / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
On 19th July, the Tate announced the purchase of one of the most acclaimed works by a British artist of the last five years, Chris Ofili’s 13-canvas installation The Upper Room (right). When this was first shown to the public three years ago in June 2002, the Guardian’s Adrian Searle judged it, “the bravest, and one of the most original works I have seen by a painter for years,” while the Telegraph’s Richard Dorment praised “a palette so rich, so saturated and so gorgeous that I can remember thinking when I first encountered it that I’d never seen another work of art like it.” Searle finished his review: “The Tate should buy it.” The critical consensus was that the installation as a whole should be held by the nation, on view to the public, and that it would be a shame either if it were split up into separate canvases or if the whole were sold abroad.
You would have thought, then, that the purchase announcement in July would have been welcomed by those who claim to love British contemporary art. Instead, stirred up by the Stuckists—a gang led by Charles Thomson, a conservative painter, hammer of the YBAs and thorn in the side of both Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota—the press has crackled with charges of cronyism and corruption. The controversy hinges on Chris Ofili’s role as a Tate trustee, a position he has held since 2000. The scandal-mongers argue that it is a gross breach of public responsibility for the Tate board of trustees to authorise the purchase of a work by one of its members. The Tate has responded that occasional exceptions have been made to this rule—works by Michael Craig-Martin and Bill Woodrow were purchased while the artists were trustees—and that Ofili left the room when the purchase was discussed in order to avoid conflict of interest. Moreover, while the Tate has contributed £120,000 from general funds and a further £100,000 from Tate members, and the NACF (National Art Collections Fund) has contributed £75,000, the rest of the £705,000 price tag was raised from private individuals. So only £120,000 out of Tate’s annual acquisition budget of £1.5m has been spent on this installation, which it is surely in the public interest for the Tate to retain.
The matter might have been allowed to rest there, had it not been for an embarrassing coincidence. In October 2004…