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Cronyism at the Tate

The appointment of “Bob and Roberta Smith” (aka Patrick Brill) and Wolfgang Tillmans as two new artist trustees at the Tate gallery has done nothing to redeem the gallery’s somewhat tarnished reputation over the relationship between its supposed governance and its executive.

The governance comes in the form of a board of twelve trustees, who are, as the Tate web site proclaims po-faced, “required to follow the principles established by the Nolan Committee in the conduct of public bodies”, one of these principles being, “Selflessness – holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.”

In 2005, I drew attention to, and campaigned about, the Tate’s acquisition of its then serving trustee Chris Ofili’s work, The Upper Room, for £705,000. In 2006 the Charity Commission ruled that the Tate had been acting illegally for 50 years in the unilateral way it purchased work by its trustees.

It might therefore be thought that the Tate would go out of its way to make sure that potential trustees were screened rigorously to ensure there was no possible whiff of transgression occurring, particularly with the potential conflict of interest facing artist trustees, of whom a minimum of three on the board is a statutory requirement.  The new appointments curiously increase the number of artist trustees to four.

The obvious answer to the dilemma would seem to be the appointment of senior artists with established reputations, to whom the Tate would look for favours, rather than the other way round.  This was indeed once the practice with such figures as Antony Caro, until Sir Nicholas Serota in 1997, after 10 years in office as Tate director, came to the 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.”

A statement he made six years later may shed some light on exactly why he thinks it works better: “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.”  He is presumably not oblivious to the fact that it will also influence the way he or she regards him, those erring on the younger side likely to be considerably more grateful for the boost to the waxing careers than those who are a powerful force and well over 60.

Serota hit back in the somewhat arcane venue of Varsity, the Cambridge student newspaper, to my previous criticisms of his relationship with the trustees, with a somewhat disingenuous “Why would I want to win their support?”

I responded, “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 [2008] 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.”

He might well expect to do so, after the support he has shown them.  All artist trustees under Serota’s tenure have had works acquired.  The two existing artist trustees both had prior benefits: Anish Kapoor (appointed in 2005, with an entry on the Tate site under “Why I wanted to become a Tate Trustee” still “Coming soon!”) was awarded the Turner Prize in 1991, and in 2002 received a prestigious Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern; Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004.

The two new artist trustees have also done very well. Smith paints slogans on boards.  One reads,  “When Donald Judd comes to our place he has super brew.  At his we get cheepo titan”.  This was snapped up a couple of years ago by the Tate for £8,500, along with another reading “Make art not war” for £6,800.  Earlier this year a further work was bought.

Smith was included in the Tate Britain show, Intelligence: New British Art 2000; commissioned to decorate the Tate Britain Christmas tree in 2008; and featured in Tate Britain show, Altermodern, Tate Triennial, 2009. His work is on sale in the Tate shop,  including a set of 16 wooden alphabet blocks (spelling “make art not war”) retailing for £44.

Tillmans, a photographer, won the £20,000 Turner Prize in 2000.  In 2003, he was given a solo show at Tate Britain.  Three years ago, 60 of his works were purchased for a total of £55,000.

Both of these artists owe Serota big favours. He has boosted their careers considerably, and they can hope for further benefits in the years ahead, if they play their cards right.  They are both in a compromised position and quite unsuited for the position of oversight.  Yet they are now on the board which employs Serota, with  the mandate of overseeing and, if necessary, disciplining or even dismissing him.

It should be noted also that 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”.  The trustee system as seen in operation at the Tate is a corrupt one that needs governmental enquiry and reform. If a comparable situation were occurring in politics or finance, it would cause outrage and heads would roll.

CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of the Stuckists art group