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Tate Cleared of Deception In Acquiring Ofili Works

Following intense media interest in the Tate’s controversial purchase of The Upper Room, a series of canvases by Chris Ofili (b. 1968), Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has conveyed to ARTnewsletter its satisfaction that Tate followed all required procedures in making the acquisition.

LONDON—Following intense media interest in the Tate’s controversial purchase of The Upper Room, a series of canvases by Chris Ofili (b. 1968), Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has conveyed to ARTnewsletter its satisfaction that Tate followed all required procedures in making the acquisition.

Ofili, winner of the 1998 Turner Prize, was a Tate trustee at the time of the acquisition, which led to accusations of a conflict of interest after the Tate paid £705,000 ($1.23 million) in July for it.

A DCMS spokesman told ARTnewsletter that Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota had met this month with DCMS permanent secretary Dame Sue Street to clarify the terms of the purchase, and that as far as the DCMS is concerned, “we do not expect there to be further comment on the matter.”

The Charity Commission, a regulator, meanwhile has confirmed that contrary to press reports, “the commission is not currently undertaking a formal evaluation of the matter with a view to an inquiry.” However, in a statement the commission said, “The full circumstances surrounding the purchase of the work are not clear at this time. The commission is in contact with the Tate and has requested further information from the charity regarding this matter.” The Tate has confirmed, through a spokesperson, that it sent full documentation to the Charity Commission and is awaiting its report.

The Upper Room comprises a series of 13 vibrantly colored paintings of rhesus macaque monkeys symbolizing Christ and the Apostles, each raised on Ofili’s signature elephant dung supports. The work is currently on display at Tate Britain in a room specially designed by architect David Adjaye.

The Tate’s acquisition of the work was funded through a combination of sources, including £120,000 ($210,000) from the Tate’s own “general fund,” £100,000 ($175,000) donated by its Tate Members, and £75,000 ($131,250) provided by the National Art Collections Fund (the Art Fund).

The remaining £305,000 ($533,750) came from private donations arranged through Ofili’s London agent Victoria Miro. Approached by ARTnewsletter to clarify its involvement in the purchase, the Victoria Miro Gallery declined to comment.

In November the Tate admitted to the British Broadcasting Company that it had made a “technical error” in seeking support from the Art Fund to buy a work by one of its own trustees. When submitting an application in November 2004, it did not disclose to the Art Fund that it had already undertaken to purchase The Upper Room. Although the Tate’s Serota offered to refund the £75,000 grant, the Art Fund declined to accept it.

The purchase prompted a storm of protest in the British media over a perceived conflict of interest, since Ofili was an acting trustee of the Tate at the time. His natural term of trusteeship expired in November.

During the late 1980s, the Tate trustees decided that the practice of purchasing works by serving trustees should be limited to “special circumstances.” In recent years, consequently, the Tate has acquired a number of works from serving artist trustees on this basis, including pieces by Michael Craig-Martin and Bill Woodrow.

The minutes of the Tate’s recent trustee meetings confirm that every time The Upper Room purchase was discussed, Ofili left the room.

Media interest in the case was stirred by a statement Ofili made in The Guardian in October 2004, in which he drew attention to the Tate’s paucity of purchase funds and urged British artists to donate works free of charge as part of a long tradition of charitable giving. Ofili himself has pledged future gifts to the Tate, an offer the Tate says it will take up “when suitable works are available.”

TOM FLYNN

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