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This year the artist and former Tate trustee, Chris Ofili, was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen for “services to art”. The following letter was sent to him on 19 October 2005. There has been no reply. This is the first time it has appeared online.
Dear Chris Ofili,
I have been informed by Mr Newman, Head of Legal, Tate, that a total price of £600,000 has been paid by Tate for your installation The Upper Room. The issue of a serving Trustee’s work being bought for such a large sum has been the subject of some controversy with page leads in The Sunday Telegraph and The Times, as well as other coverage in several issues of the Evening Standard, Independent on Sunday and today’s Telegraph. This coverage has not reflected favourably on you, Tate, or others involved, including Sir Nicholas Serota and Tate Chairman Paul Myners.
Attention has been drawn not only to the appearance of favouritism and conflict of interest, but also to the Tate’s claim of lack of funds for maintaining contemporary acquisitions and its drive “Building the Tate Collection”, when leading artists were asked to donate work. Last year you wrote in The Guardian to support this appeal, saying, “As soon as I heard about this request from the Tate, I felt as a trustee and an artist it would be an altogether positive thing to do.” It was not publicly known at the time, but it is now apparent, that when you endorsed this appeal for other artists to give their work, you knew that a major fund-raising effort was in place to buy your own work. In fact, one of the factors contributing to the shortage of funds is the allocation of a significant amount of them to you. This does not reflect well on you or Tate.
When you accepted the Trusteeship, you were bound by the Nolan Committee Seven Principles of Public Life. The first of these is “Selflessness: holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.” I suggest that you cannot be seen to have acted in accord with this. This purchase of your work has been damaging not only to your reputation, but that of Tate. It has undermined Tate’s appeal for other artists to donate work, and your own endorsement of this appeal in the circumstances leaves a very bad impression of hypocrisy and opportunism.
I therefore urge you to redeem the bad situation that has been created by refunding the money for The Upper Room to Tate, and asking your gallerist Victoria Miro to do the same. Errors of judgement can be forgiven if they are corrected. They cannot be forgiven, however, if they are perpetuated. The current unsavoury associations with this purchase show no signs of abating. In fact they show every sign of being inextricably linked with future perception of your work and career. I cannot see that this will be at all in your real interests.
By demonstrating magnanimity, you will set a significant example to other artists as regards the Tate donation appeal. By donating your “most important work to date”, you will set a benchmark for other artists to follow. Tate cannot create the first class collection it aspires to and fill the gaps it wishes to, unless a culture is created where it is seen as fitting for artists to donate their best work to Tate. Donating the best work is generous; donating the second-best is tokenism, and will lead to a second-rate collection instead of a first-rate one. If a Trustee is not prepared to show the way, then there is no incentive for other artists to do likewise.
In this respect, I would draw your attention to the offer of a donation of Stuckist works to Tate. I was insistent that I would only accept the best works from the artists for this donation. Some were very resistant to this idea, as they felt certain pieces were highlights of many years’ work, and would impair their ability to mount their own future private shows. Nevertheless, they did all agree to meet my stipulation. Some of the artists have to fit their art around full-time job; some are dependent on sales of their art for an income; some work very slowly. Their offer was a genuine potential sacrifice, and a greater one than you will make, as the Trustee minutes record that five of your paintings have already been sold to collectors as an integral part of raising donations for Tate to buy The Upper Room.
As you have said, “The Tate isn’t a private institution, it belongs to the nation. So if artists give work to the Tate, they are giving work to the nation. There is a very long tradition of such artistic philanthropy in this country.” It is between you and your conscience as to how you are judged in regard to this tradition.
Co-founder, The Stuckists