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Tate considered buying Ofili installation with US collector

The controversy over the institution’s acquisition of a work by one of its trustees rumbles on

The Chris Ofili affair continues, following the Tate’s reluctance to reveal the cost of The upper room. Last month we suggested that the price was £600,000. This has been confirmed by documents published in The Sunday Telegraph which were released under the Freedom of Information Act; they also show that a further £105,000 was paid in VAT.

The Tate documents reveal that the original asking price of the installation with its 13 paintings had been £720,000, so the discount given to the institution was 20%. Since last year, Ofili’s work has become more expensive, and his 1999 painting Nooca sold for £344,000 at Christie’s, London on 23 October. This now makes The upper room look like a bargain. Nevertheless, concerns have been expressed about the gallery buying work by one of its own trustees.

Tate trustee minutes were also obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and released by the Stuckists, critics of conceptual art and the Ofili purchase. These papers show that a joint acquisition between the Tate and a private US buyer was considered in late 2002. New York’s MoMA is also believed to have been interested in acquiring the work. However, it was soon realised that frequent transatlantic moving of the installation would pose conservation problems.

A further embarrassment emerged last month when it emerged that Tate had broken conditions imposed by the National Art Collections Fund (NACF), by asking for money after it was already committed to a purchase. This commitment was agreed in November 2003. It was a year later, in November 2004, that an application was made to NACF and the £75,000 grant was approved on 9 December.

It was only in October this year, with all the publicity surrounding the Ofili affair, that NACF discovered that Tate’s purchase had been decided before the grant application. Tate director Nicholas Serota immediately apologised for the mistake and offered to arrange repayment of the money. NACF decided against requesting a reimbursement.

The issue was further complicated by the fact that David Verey had been Tate chairman until March 2004 (by which time a commitment had been made to purchase The upper room), but in September 2004 he was appointed chairman of the NACF. Mr Verey did not take part in the meeting of 20 October at which the Tate grant was approved, so there was no conflict of interest.

To add to these difficulties, it now appears that there are potential conservation problems with The upper room, according to a leaked report published in the Independent. Conservator Natasha Duff warned that light levels inside the installation are too high, and should either be reduced considerably, or the work should be kept off display for several years before it is next reinstalled. Originally, it has been hoped to also show The upper room at Tate Liverpool, but this plan had to be dropped after objections were raised by Ofili because of the architecture of the gallery.

Tate Liverpool’s structure includes pillars, which would have interfered with the visual impact of the installation. Ofili has insisted that The upper room only be displayed under specific conditions, which include a requirement that the venue’s architecture should not intrude on the work.

Under Nicholas Serota’s directorship works by all artist-trustees on the Tate board have been acquired while they were serving. They comprise Michael Craig-Martin, Christopher Le Brun, Richard Deacon, Peter Doig, Bill Woodrow, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Julian Opie and Fiona Rae.

The Tate insists that acquisitions from artist-trustees, whether donations or purchases, are only accepted under special circumstances. In many cases the acquisitions were donations but with five trustees there were purchases (see right).

It would be unfortunate if the Tate felt unable to acquire the work of certain artists, just because they are trustees. But there is a widespread belief that when this is done, it should be done openly. Ofili’s term as a trustee expired on 21 November, and his successor is expected to be named shortly.