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Tate withholds information in defiance of government guidelines

The gallery will not disclose the purchase price of 13 paintings by trustee Chris Ofili

The controversy over the Tate’s purchase of a work by one of its own trustees deepened last month, with growing pressure on the gallery to reveal the price paid for Chris Ofili’s The upper room (The Art Newspaper, No. 161, September 2005, p.20). We sought access to the register of trustees’ interests, but although this document should be open to the public, the key information had been blacked out in the copy provided. This appears to be in defiance of guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The Art Newspaper had requested Mr Ofili’s declaration of interests and his accompanying form on “related third party transactions”. The latter document, signed on 22 April 2004, noted a transaction with the Victoria Miro Gallery, recording that The upper room had been “offered for purchase for the sum of...”, with the amount blacked out. This appears to be the first time that a trustee’s declaration has been edited in this way by any institution since the present system was introduced, following the Nolan Committee recommendations on standards in public life.

The Tate states that the register of trustees’ interests is “available to the public on written request.” In this case, however, we were told that certain information was being withheld. A spokesperson explained: “It is the conflict [of interests] not the cost or amount of any transaction that is the important fact for the register. Therefore the purchase price of Ofili’s The upper room was not required to be recorded in the register and the Tate included it in error. Because the purchase price is commercially sensitive and to release the information jeopardises the Tate’s ability to acquire works of art in future, we have had to edit the document before releasing it.”

Arguably it should be up to individual trustees to decide how much detail they wish to provide on a possible conflict of interest and some trustees may feel it is important to be as specific as possible. In this instance, however, we understand that the form was filled in for Mr Ofili by Tate staff, and that he then signed it.

DCMS provided us with a copy of their guidance to the Tate. This states that “it is now also a mandatory requirement that the trustees’ register of interests is open to the public.” Officials expressed surprise that the Tate had not allowed access to the original and had edited the copy supplied.

In a separate move, the Tate has responded to several Freedom of Information Act requests on the Ofili affair. The Tate partially answered requests, by divulging the sum contributed to the purchase from gallery funds, but not the total paid. It was revealed that £120,000 came from the Tate, in addition to the previously announced £100,000 from Tate Members and £75,000 from the National Art Collections Fund. These three sources therefore provided a total of £295,000. The remainder came from private donors, who are believed to have contributed a larger sum. This means that the total cost of The upper room was over £600,000.

Considering that the Ofili work comprises a set of 13 large paintings, a sum of this size comes as no surprise, and it does include a discount for a public collection.

The upper room went on show last month in the rehang of Tate Britain’s collection, where it was well received by the critics.

We do not suggest any impropriety by Mr Ofili, or the Tate, but major acquisitions from trustees should be made on a transparent basis. Mr Ofili was unavailable for comment.