The trustees of the Tate gallery have just announced the reappointment of Sir Nicholas Serota as director. In their enthusiasm they failed to mention this to the prime minister, whose approval is required under the Museums and Galleries Act. It is symptomatic of a culture at the museum which lacks proper accountability and which the Department of Culture, Media and Sport declares it administers “at arm’s length”.
It is also symptomatic of the power that Serota wields over the trustee board. He does not appoint trustees, but attends interviews “in an advisory capacity”. This is astonishing, as the trustee board is his employer. The appointment of those sympathetic to his views – or those who have a good reason not to oppose his views – becomes ever easier to achieve, as the interview panel for new trustees are current trustees, whose appointment he has in the past “advised” on: he has had twenty years to get the advice right.
Serota’s ability to achieve his aims is apparent in the trustee minutes recording the purchase of Tate trustee Chris Ofili’s work The Upper Room (over which the Tate was eventually censured for breaking the law by the Charity Commission). The purchase came about because “The Trustees accepted Sir Nicholas Serota’s argument” that it should do. The only serious doubt, over a possible drop in value of the work, was made by Jon Snow (a journalist by trade), seconded in an exchange arrangement from the National Gallery board, but “Nicholas Serota assured him this was not the case” and this pronouncement was the end of the matter.
Three of the twelve trustees are artists. At one time these were senior figures, whose reputations were secure and who had nothing to lose by speaking their mind, as opposed to artists in mid-career, who have a lot to gain from the Tate director’s approbation and a lot to lose from his disfavour. After ten years in office, Serota made this comment regarding the sculptor, Antony Caro: “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.”
All artist trustees during Serota’s tenure have had works acquired by the gallery, in one case fifty works. Thomas Hoving, former director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had this to say on the Tate’s acquisition of Ofili’s work: “To think they thought there’s not even a perception of a conflict … For goodness’ sake, it’s so obvious.”
The Tate was equally blind to an obvious conflict of interest with the appointment to trusteeship of Melanie Clore, whose four year term finished recently. She is Board Director and Deputy Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe, and its Co-Chairman, Impressionist & Modern Art, Worldwide. In a two year period she “left the room” three times at trustee meetings over conflicts of interest. She was, however, present in the room on 15 November 2006, when Tate trustees were informed of a forthcoming major retrospective by artist (and former trustee) Peter Doig to take place the following February – an event bound to boost his prices. The day before the trustee meeting, a Doig painting with an upper estimate of £1.5 million had sold at Sotheby’s for only £445,000. Nine days after the trustee meeting, The New York Times reported that Sotheby’s had bought seven Doigs from Charles Saatchi for $11 million. Doig’s exhibition opened at the Tate on 5 February. On 7 February Sotheby’s auctioned one of its Doigs for £5,732,000.
Clore has said that the Sotheby’s purchase was completed about seven weeks before Doig’s show was announced at the trustee meeting (although it is not clear whether or not she had knowledge of the show prior to the meeting) and that she didn’t speak to anyone at Sotheby’s about the show until it was public knowledge. Even the fact that she is in the position of having to make that denial at all shows the lack of discrimination and responsibility in trustee selection at the gallery. Altogether, trustees “left the room” on ten occasions during a two year period, the chairman, Paul Myners, on two of them. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport guidelines warn against even the appearance of conflict of interest.
There is no evidence in the trustee minutes that the board is anything other than a rubber stamp for whatever proposals are put to it by the director. The realpolitik of the relationship between Serota and his nominal overseers was demonstrated during the recovery of two stolen Turner paintings in 2000 and 2002. The recovery of the Turners involved crucial decisions of ethics, legality and finance: £3.5 million was handed over to a somewhat murky destination to regain the works. The board of trustees take legal responsibility for the operations of the gallery, yet incredibly only two of the dozen trustees were informed of the details of the rescue operation (one of them not being Paul Myners, now the chairman), along with another then-Tate employee, Sandy Nairne, and a representative of an insurance syndicate.
The strength and independence of the trustee board has been eroded. It does not represent a balance of views and it does not represent the wider public, as it should. Far from fulfilling the legal requirement that “the director shall be responsible to the Board for the general exercise of the Board’s function”, the board has become the stooge of the director. There needs to be a government review and protocols established so that genuinely independent voices take trustee office. Regarding the current self-perpetuating coterie at the Tate, the obvious solution is an entirely new board to be chosen by an independent body, and the last person who should have a say in this is the Tate director.
Serota petition: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/tatedirector
CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of the Stuckists art group