Did Tate miss its chance to get the Saatchi Collection?

The greatest contemporary art collector in Britain says he was ready to offer all his art to gallery director Nicholas Serota—but his proposal was not pursued

The Art Newspaper can reveal that Charles Saatchi was willing to offer his entire collection to Tate Modern last year. He owns an estimated 2,500 works, many by Young British Artists, and these are worth well over £100 million ($185 million). They include important pieces by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili, Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread. The transfer of the Saatchi Collection would therefore have transformed Tate’s holdings, making it the world’s finest collection of contemporary British art. Yet, surprisingly, this astonishing proposal was not followed up.

News of Mr Saatchi’s offer to Tate came in response to questions from The Art Newspaper and our readers (see pp.29-31). In the past decade, Charles Saatchi has never given a full interview and this is the first time he has ever answered questions on the record.

We asked Mr Saatchi whether he would like to see the core of his collection remain on public view after his death. He answered: “I did offer my collection to Nicholas Serota at the Tate last year. This was about the time I was struggling with the problems at County Hall [his gallery]—both the alarming behaviour of the Japanese landlords, and my failure to get a grip on how to use the space well.”

“I remembered that at the time Tate Modern opened, Nick had told me that there were new extensions planned that would add half again to the gallery capacity. But by the time I offered the collection to Nick, the Tate already had commitments for the extension.”

When we contacted Sir Nicholas Serota’s office, the Tate confirmed the approach, but put a rather different interpretation on it, suggesting that a loan rather than an outright gift had been proposed. The Tate statement says: “Last year Charles Saatchi, then having difficulties with his landlord at County Hall, approached Nicholas Serota with the suggestion that he would like to move his exhibition programme from County Hall to the derelict ‘oil tank’ spaces at Tate Modern. Nicholas Serota explained that these spaces could not be used without major expenditure. At no point was there any suggestion that the collection was being offered as a gift to Tate”.

Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi evidently hold differing views on whether a loan or gift was under discussion. The offer was made during a brief telephone conversation between the two men late last year. It seems that Mr Saatchi offered to move his collection to Tate Modern, with the precise basis of the offer never discussed.

The result was that the Tate director seems to have been left with the impression that a loan was being proposed.

What is surprising is that that the two men did not meet to discuss the offer in detail or suggest possible, alternative collaborations.

Saatchi vs Tate

The story of Mr Saatchi’s links with the Tate go back more than two decades, when he was among the gallery’s Patrons of New Art. In 1982 he and his then wife, Doris, lent their works by Julian Schnabel for an exhibition, but there was adverse comment on Mr Saatchi’s influence at the Tate, encouraging him to go independent and set up his own gallery. This opened three years later in a converted warehouse in St John’s Wood, north London.

Last year, when Mr Saatchi moved his gallery to the much more accessible South Bank, there was constant talk about a rivalry between him and Mr Serota. The press gleefully pointed out that he had opened the Saatchi Gallery in a location which was half way between Tate Britain and the recently established Tate Modern, suggesting he was trying to draw crowds away from the trendy new Tate.

So why did Mr Saatchi consider offering his entire collection to Tate? Mr Saatchi says that he was having difficulties with his landlord, the Japanese company which owns County Hall, the former home of the London County Council. The row had escalated to such a point that a senior Shirayama Shokusan executive was accused of damaging a sculpture by Duane Hanson. Mr Saatchi also encountered problems in adapting the listed 1920s building for the display of contemporary art.

Presumably out of frustration, Mr Saatchi contemplated moving out of County Hall and housing the collection elsewhere.

He has made numerous gifts in the past, but nothing on such a scale. In 1992 he donated 12 works to Tate including art by Lisa Milroy and Julian Opie; in 1999 he gave 100 works to the Arts Council, with a further 34 sculptures donated in March 2003. In 2000 he provided 39 items to public galleries through the National Art Collections Fund and in 2002 gave 50 paintings to various hospitals.

The Saatchi Collection has now grown to around 2,500 works. A comparatively small number are at Mr Saatchi’s home in Eaton Square. Around 100 works are on show at the Saatchi Gallery, in a display which usually changes every four to five months, but the majority of the collection, probably well over 2,000 items, are normally in store or on loan to other museums. In the fire that destroyed a warehouse leased by the firm Momart this May, Mr Saatchi lost 144 works, and he recently accepted a £10 million insurance payment for these works.

It might come as a surprise that Mr Saatchi offered his collection to an institution of which he has been critical. Even in his responses to our questions, he expressed serious reservations with the Tate, although admitting that some things were being done right.

“Obviously Tate Modern is a stupendous gift to Britain, and Nicholas Serota is my hero to have pulled it off so masterfully. I like some of the exhibitions at the Tate, but many are disappointing. The curators should get out more and see more studios and grass roots shows...The Tate seems sadly disengaged from the young British art community.”

Mr Saatchi then makes some powerful comparisons with other parts of the world. “Puzzlingly, museums in Europe and the US are far more interested in examining Britain’s recent artistic achievements.”

When asked: “Why do overseas museums have better collections of Britart than the Tate?” He answered: “Because the Tate curators didn’t know what they were looking at during the early 90s, when even the piddliest budget would have bought you many great works.” He then goes on to say: “But I’m no better. I regularly find myself waking up to art I passed by or simply ignored.”

Why did Serota not pursue the offer?

Sir Nicholas Serota was unwilling to elaborate on his decision not to pursue the offer. Even if he assumed it to have been a loan, rather than a gift, it would have still added considerably to Tate Modern’s displays. We can only speculate, but he may have felt that Mr Saatchi would want to lend a very large collection, only a very small part of which could be displayed—putting a burden on storage facilities. The Tate director may also have been concerned that there would be unacceptable conditions attached to the offer, such as that the works on loan from Saatchi should be displayed separately from Tate’s collection or that its owner would want to exert curatorial control.

A major hurdle is space at Tate Modern. The potential extra area which could be developed comprises the disused oil tanks in the basement area, just to south of the present Turbine Hall. Now owned by Tate, the three huge tanks originally held fuel for the power station. In a clover-leaf configuration, they are accessible from the centre of the tank area and could provide a large area of new display space. But the costs of opening them up would be many millions of pounds. At present, there are no plans for the space, contrary to Mr Saatchi’s understanding, and a concerted fundraising drive has not yet been launched.

Nevertheless, the Saatchi offer came at a time when Sir Nicholas was becoming increasingly concerned about the acquisitions crisis facing Tate. Very little grant in aid is now available for acquisitions, and Heritage Lottery Fund money is not available for contemporary art. A month ago Tate announced a new initiative on acquisitions (see above).

* For Charles Saatchi’s answers to over 30 questions put to him by The Art Newspaper and its readers, see pp.29-31

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 153 December 2004