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 the Tate announced a new initiative, “Building the Tate Collection,” which invited leading artists and collectors to donate works free to Tate Modern. Ofili wrote an eloquent article in the Guardian supporting the initiative, pledging that he would himself give a work. This all sounded very generous and high-minded, and very necessary, given the Tate’s lack of purchasing power in today’s inflated contemporary art market. As Serota said last year, the level of government funding for the Tate has been steadily reduced over the past 20 years, while market prices have risen by as much as 1,000 per cent. Unfortunately, Ofili’s very public support came at just the moment that his dealer, Victoria Miro, was delicately putting the finishing touches to the deal to enable the Tate to buy The Upper Room for what remained for a long time a suspiciously mysterious amount of money.
At this point it would be easy to stir up tensions between the artists, dealers, collectors and the public and private galleries that make up the contemporary art market. From a certain perspective, what this story exposes is how, without adequate independent purchase funds, the Tate becomes just another manipulable player in the merry-go-round of artistic reputation, lending its imprimatur to whichever paintings private benefactors or artists themselves are prepared to donate. Gallerygoers get to see more art this way, but not necessarily the most significant or interesting art, while it is surely the private collectors who, seeing the value of their stock rise, stand to benefit most.
But from another point of view, the story of the acquisition perfectly exemplifies a benign circle of mutual interest that has always supported both our artists and our public art galleries. For the Tate is nothing if not an amalgamation of several private collections, philanthropically donated to the public. Like almost every other public gallery of stature anywhere in the world, its collections are not disinterestedly representative of the best that has been painted in every style and every era. They are a still-living record of the accidents and opportunities of personal taste and private philanthropy that have brought these disparate works together under one public roof. These private collections—from Henry Tate’s onwards—reflected the sensibilities of their owners as much as they did the critical values of the Tate’s curators. Their donations played a significant part in the slow game of artistic reputation and in building the appreciation of the public for the artists whose work they incorporated.
We need private collectors, because it is only when there is a critical mass of private collecting that artists earn a decent living. We also need their judgements—no doubt often muddied by a desire to be fashionable or to make a quick killing, but also driven by the heart—to offset the equally complicated agendas of museum curators. Clearly it does not suit the public if private collectors become so powerful financially that they can lock away the cream of contemporary work in their mansions. But fortunately, even setting aside the unpredictable motive of generosity, private collectors have an equally powerful need for the works they love to be on show in public museums: partly to confirm their judgement and partly to create the climate of public appreciation that establishes the value of their holdings. In this they share the interests of their favourite artists, who, while naturally wishing to secure the highest price for their work, also wish to see it in the public eye, enthroned in the temple of fame. It would have been easy for Ofili to have instructed Victoria Miro to split the series of paintings and sell each one to the highest bidder. Alternatively, it is reported that New York’s MoMA had been showing a strong interest in purchasing the whole, and so the series might have gone, as have Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost and other contemporary British masterpieces, into an American public collection. Instead, Ofili fought to ensure the work’s integrity and its place in a national collection, even at a lower price. In an era of straitened public finances, surely we should be grateful that the strings of mutual interest pulled this way.
Meanwhile, the press has been slow to explain that the fiercest hounding of Ofili, the Tate and the Victoria Miro gallery has come from the Stuckists, who want to destroy the reputation of artists they regard as part of the great YBA contemporary art scam. Moreover, a week after the Tate announced the Ofili acquisition, the Stuckists learned that their own charge at the ramparts of the art establishment had been rebutted: Serota refused their offer of the 160 Stuckist works that the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool had exhibited in 2004 as “Punk Victorian.” Hell hath no fury like an artist spurned.