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Chris Ofili

Conspiracy or cock-up over Ofili’s Upper Room?

Tate board member Chris Ofili calls on artists to donate work to the Tate whilst selling his own work to the Gallery.

When Tate Britain’s redisplay opens on 13 September, one of the highlights will be the newly acquired installation by Chris Ofili, The upper room. But the artist is also on the Tate board, which raises questions about how the gallery should handle purchases of works by its own trustees. Last month The Sunday Telegraph also asked why Ofili had publicly called on artists to donate works to the Tate, while at the same time benefiting from a sale of his work to the gallery.

On 25 October 2004 the Tate published a list of signatories to a pledge urging artists to give to the national collection. Ofili was among them and two days later he wrote an article for the Guardian, saying: “The idea of contemporary artists donating work to the Tate, of which I am a trustee, has been in the pipeline for some time... I work very slowly and don’t have work lying around in the studio to toss their way, but I am very happy to offer something for future consideration.”

The Art Newspaper has established that the Tate was interested in buying The upper room right from the time it was exhibited at the Victoria Miro Gallery in June 200, and a decision to purchase was made in July 2003—although this was not completed until January 2005. So, at the very moment when Ofili wrote his article for the Guardian, the Tate was actively fundraising to buy his work.

The Tate has a general policy of not divulging prices paid, but the question is whether openness should be an overriding factor when trustees’ interests are involved.

The National Art Collections Fund, which contributed £70,000 to the purchase, almost always publishes the total price of objects they contribute towards, and the organisation rarely faces objections from galleries and museums. On this occasion, however, the Tate insisted that the price should not be disclosed, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. Tate Members had provided £100,000 and a further contribution was made by private benefactors. As the deal offered to the Tate was a “special museum price”, below the market value of the work, it is unclear why the information is “commercially sensitive”.

A Tate spokesman said that the trustees “felt strongly that to neglect to acquire this major group of paintings would represent a missed opportunity.”

Ofili, the 1998 Turner Prize winner, has been a trustee since 2000 and his term expires on 21 November.