For the first time the Tate has decided to deaccession by sale unique works of contemporary art in order to upgrade its collection. The first work to go is by Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz.
Tate director Nicholas Serota has long wanted to be able to deaccession to “trade up” representation of an artist’s work, but until now this has never been done. While rare in the UK, the practice is relatively commonplace in American art museums.
Although the Tate has the power to deaccession under the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act, it has only been exercised once, in the case of a duplicate print by Roy Lichtenstein (there have also been some transfers to other national museums). The gallery’s trustees believe it important that deaccessioning of contemporary works should only be done in consultation with the artist, to upgrade the collection. Discussions have taken place with the Muñoz estate (the artist died in 2001).
Muñoz’s Staircase #2, 1999, was originally presented by San Francisco donors Frances and John Bowes, through the American Fund for the Tate Gallery. When donated in 2005, the sculpture was valued at £80,000, and it was formally accessioned three years later. Staircase #2 is a large steel structure, over two metres tall and roughly one metre square. It has never been shown at the Tate, not even in its 2008 Muñoz retrospective.
Since 2005, the Tate has acquired three other Muñoz works, most notably the large installation The Prompter, 1988, valued at £714,000, which was donated by the artist’s estate in 2008. The gallery now wants to acquire another important and historically significant work by the artist. Frances Bowes has agreed that Staircase #2 can be sold and the proceeds used towards the purchase of the other sculpture, which is not being named.
Although the decision to sell Staircase #2 was made by the trustees last year, it has not yet been sold. The Muñoz will first be offered for sale to other UK public galleries. If no acceptable offers are forthcoming, it will then be sold on the commercial market.
The second work being deaccessioned is Cai Guo-Qiang’s Mr Ye Who Loves Dragon, 2003, made with gunpowder on huge sheets of paper, measuring a massive 4x15 metres. It was presented to the Tate in 2005 by the Billstone Foundation, and was then valued at £213,000. The work was created during a live performance in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern on 31 January 2003, and was exhibited there for two weeks. The Tate also owns a smaller version of Mr Ye Who Loves Dragon, although this one is still six metres long.
Cai’s huge work has never been displayed again and its size would make it difficult to show on request in store. One presumes that the Billstone Foundation has been concerned that the work is not on view, since its return was requested. The foundation has offered to secure the donation of a work by another artist, although this does not represent a legal requirement. Discussions are continuing on the alternative donation.
The Tate has followed the Museums Association’s ethical guidelines on deaccessioning as well as following the Charity Commission and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council procedures.