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Lies, Damned Lies and Serota at the BBC: the Tate director’s Unsuitability for Arts Council Chairman

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Professor Michael Craig-Martin (centre), Sir Nicholas Serota (right).
Original photo by David Prest, Thistledown Productions, nose by Charles Thomson

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate gallery, has used the platform of the BBC in a blatant attempt to deceive the nation. Either that, or he is genuinely deluded himself. Both options render him unfit for major public office.

He was confronted on Radio 4 programme The Reunion: Tate Modern on 23 September by Sue MacGregor, regarding the Tate’s purchase in 2005 of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work, The Upper Room. She observed with wry understatement, “The Charity Commission said you didn’t quite follow the rules here.”

In 2006, as the BBC then reported, Charity Commission chief executive Andrew Hind said there were “serious shortcomings … In any charity we would be concerned that such basic matters were neglected, but in a charity of the size and stature of the Tate we are very disappointed.”

The Guardian expounded, “The Tate has broken the law … By law, trustees cannot receive monetary benefit from their charity without express permission, usually from the commission. The Tate failed to seek permission … The Charity Commission’s full recommendations and criticisms, laid out in a lengthy document, also said the Tate failed to manage conflicts of interest … Failed to seek independent valuation of works by artist-trustees … Had no defined policy relating to purchases from artist-trustees … Had insufficiently clear acquisition policies … Kept insufficient records of trustee meetings.”

The Daily Telegraph called this verdict “one of the most serious indictments of the running of one of the nation’s major cultural institutions in living memory.”

“After an in-depth review lasting ten months by the Commission”, stated The Times, Serota “accepted the criticisms” and “was genuinely contrite.” The Evening Standard confirmed, “Sir Nicholas said today he accepted all the Charity Commission’s findings.”

In stark contrast, his response to Sue Macgregor ten years later was an astonishing and shameless attempt to hoodwink the nation and evade blame with a trivialising revisionism that implied gross misconduct by the Charity Commission. To the supportive laughter of his entourage on the programme, Serota declared smoothly – as if it were established fact – the evasive nonsense, “The rules of course were invented after we had flouted them.”

Serota has a history of obfuscation, whether lies, half-truths, delusions, evasions or omissions. In 2004, he applied for a grant from the Art Fund towards the purchase of The Upper Room. He signed a form saying that there had been no prior commitment to the purchase of the work (a condition of funding). Thanks to journalist Chris Hastings and the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that, eight months prior to the application, the Tate had paid a £250,000 deposit. Serota blamed it on “a failing in my head”.

In 2005, I was quoted in The Observer: “Serota, as the director, chooses the trustees, and the trustees are then responsible for reappointing the director. The director then buys the trustees’ work.” In 2008, this was brought up in Varsity (the Cambridge Student Newspaper), where Serota defended himself with another flagrant falsehood: “I don’t have any part to play in their appointment.”

The September 2005 Tate board minutes state: “The Director [Serota] 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.” In the May 2007 minutes, another trustee interview is on record with a panel of three trustees, the independent assessor and Serota.

The Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery Annual Accounts 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, and 2008-2009 all say in the section on trustees: “The key stages of the appointment are overseen by a panel, which will normally include the Director.”

Also in Varsity, Serota said about the trustees, “Why would I want to win their support?” The simple answer to that is that he is their employee, as he explained in 1993 in the Independent on Sunday, when he hoped to be appointed for a second seven year term as Tate Director: ”Tate trustees fall in and out of love with their director and I’ll only discover whether they have fallen out of love with me in 1995 when they discuss my contract … The jury’s out”.

On the Radio 4 programme, MacGregor confronted Serota about an event in October 2003 that became public the following year, namely “that Charles Saatchi offered you his entire collection … it was worth 200 million – for nothing.” Serota denied this: “I wish he had … he did have a great collection. Sadly he never did offer it to us.”

This response is consistent with Serota’s version to the press in 2004, when he said that Saatchi’s offer was not for a gift but for a loan of work, which he (Serota) immediately rejected (none of which was mentioned to MacGregor).

Surprisingly, Serota’s reply was immediately contradicted on the programme by former Tate trustee, Michael Craig-Martin, who admitted there had in fact been an offer of work: “Unfortunately what was offered to the Tate was not the great collection with the great things in it, most of which were already gone by that time. They had been sold by that time.”

As it happens, that is incorrect. At the time of the offer in 2003, Saatchi still had in his collection iconic Brit art works, including Damien Hirst’s shark, Tracey Emin’s bed, Rachel Whiteread’s plaster cast of a room, Mark Quinn’s head made from frozen blood, Sarah Lucas’ table with two fried eggs and a kebab, Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley painting with children’s hand prints, Ron Mueck’s sculpture of his dead father, the Chapman’s penis-nosed mannequins and Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary painting with elephant dung.

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Saatchi’s – not a great collection, says Michael Craig-Martin?

Serota continued about Saatchi “Michael [Craig-Martin] and I with Janet De Botton spent a great deal of time in the late nineties trying to persuade him to give, not his collection, but maybe ten works from his collection as a founding collection for Tate Modern. But I’m afraid he didn’t feel for one reason or another able to do that.”

This is obviously another failing in Serota’s head. In 2004, the Evening Standard reported that in 1998, “Saatchi offered 86 works by 57 British artists – including Langlands & Bell, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed and Glenn Brown” (as well as Richard Billingham, Richard Wilson and Chantal Joffe). A Tate spokeswoman confirmed the offer of 86 works, which were rejected as “The trustees felt on this occasion the works would be better suited in a collection elsewhere.”

Regarding The Upper Room scandal, Christopher McCall QC wrote to the press in 2005, condemning “expediency …which has an appeal to an overbearing executive.” The Times said of the Tate: “If it had been a company, the verdict would have sent shareholders into a panic.” No doubt if it had been a government, resignations or sackings would have followed the public outcry. Surely we have the right to expect the same standards across the board in public life, including the arts.

Serota has not displayed a level of behaviour and integrity to remain a figurehead and step into another prime position as Chairman of the Arts Council. His record is tarnished and far from admitting to his mistakes, he has the blinkered arrogance to pretend they never happened. We need leaders who do not have recurrent failings in their head.

Charles Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckists art group.

Sign the petition against the highjacking of the Turner Prize here.

Listen to the programme Reunion: Tate Modern here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vw99w

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