More than bricks and mortar

Spawned by a sugar daddy, the Tate Gallery yesterday celebrated the first 100 years of a history marked more by missed opportunites than clever planning. Yet, even with a vastly reduced budget, it may at last be getting it right. Just look at those bricks.

Buildings play a prominent role in the history of the Tate. It had only seven galleries when it first opened in July 1897, but the man who paid for it, Sir Henry Tate, art patron and creator of the sugar cube, ensured that nine more were added two years later. Then came the Duveens, father and son, who siphoned some of their profits from selling England's art treasures abroad into three further extensions. The last of these created the magnificent sculpture galleries that form the central spine and create a vista some 300 feet long. Not a single brick had been paid for by government money until the addition of the Llewellyn Davies extension, which finally opened in 1979. There followed a kind of garden annexe, in the form of the Clore Gallery, and a move into the regions with the creation of outstations at Liverpool and St Ives.

Behind this architectural trajectory lies the need to house art. For a collection cannot exist unless there are buildings in which to display, store and conserve it. The Tate's collection, therefore, lies at the heart of its endeavour. It was Henry Tate's original gift of 65 paintings and two sculptures that provided the initial impetus. And it is the burgeoning wealth of the Tate's holdings in both British art and modern foreign art that has led to the most ambitious development of all: the decision to convert Bankside power station, on the south side of the Thames, into the Tate Gallery of Modern Art and to relaunch Millbank, on the north side, as the Tate Gallery of British Art for the new millennium.

Yet if we trace the growth of the Tate's collection, we find a history that is far from glorious. Missed opportunities abound. Conservatism and philistinism held the Tate back and allowed younger institutions, notably New York's Museum of Modern Art, to take the lead and formulate a buying policy that far surpassed the Tate's. It is MoMA that owns Matisse's The Red Studio, which the Tate could have bought in the late 1940s for pounds 600. And, although the Tate instigated a major Cezanne exhibition in 1996, it did not allow a Cezanne oil painting into the Gallery until 1929, when one was lent by the rayon manufacturer, Samuel Courtauld. Two Cezannes offered on loan in 1921 had been turned down, despite the fact that this artist was by then universally recognised as the father of modern art. "A Gallery of Modern Foreign Art without Cezanne," observed the Burlington Magazine, "is like a Gallery of Florentine Art without Giotto."

One of the Tate's problems was a lack of money. Another was its inferior position. It had no official purchase grant until 1946 and was initially run as a subsidiary of the National Gallery. Its management was accountable for every penny it spent to the senior institution and its policy determined by National Gallery trustees who were more interested in Old Masters than in contemporary art. "It was," wrote one of the Tate's first keepers, DS MacColl, "harder to get a picture in than it would have been to steal one of those already there."

The situation improved in 1917 when, as a result of the Curzon Report, the Tate became semi-independent. It now had its own Board of Trustees, but all its financial affairs remained subject to the accounting officer at Trafalgar Square and its collection was still vested in the Trustees of the National Gallery. This was the situation up until 1954, when an Act of Parliament finally gave the Tate full independence.

Nowadays, the Tate's commitment to contemporary art, highlighted by the annual brouhaha surounding the Turner Prize, invites both praise and controversy. But during the first 40 years of its existence, the Gallery had little or no involvement with avant-garde art. Instead, it was regarded as a dumping ground for weakly anecdotal and sentimental art. Much of the blame rests with the Chantrey Bequest. Initially, this was the Tate's chief source of acquisitions, yet the Gallery had no say over what was bought because the bequest was administered by Royal Academicians. Only after much protest, a public inquiry and the setting-up of recommendation committees did the Tate gain a degree of influence over Chantrey purchases.

But obstructions to the growth of the Tate's collection came also from within. In the 1930s, the director, JB Manson, vowed that no Henry Moore sculpture would enter the Tate as long as he was in charge. His successor, John Rothenstein, did nothing to remove a long-standing prejudice against German art. He also concurred with the Trustees' decision to turn down four Kandinskys in 1939. The offer was reconsidered a month later and one of these pictures, Cossacks, was accepted, but the donor was informed by letter that there was scant likelihood of its being hung, as the Tate did not have enough abstract art to fill an entire gallery.

In 1946, when the Tate hosted a British Council exhibition of Braque's work, it took two days, the artist Patrick Heron claims, before anyone noticed that one of the pictures was upside down. There was no Cubist work by either Braque or Picasso in the Tate collection at this date, and the many gaps in the foreign collection became a growing cause for concern. Pressure was put on the government to increase the annual purchase grant. By the time Norman Reid took over as director in 1964, it had risen to pounds 60,000. In addition, the Tate's chairman, Sir Colin Anderson, persuaded the Treasury to grant an additional pounds 50,000 for five years, specifically to help fill the "gaps". This made possible the acquisition of Picasso's Three Dancers, which the trustee Roland Penrose negotiated for the Tate.

Thanks to Penrose and another Surrealist collector, Edward James, friend and patron of Dali, the Tate today owns an impressive Surrealist collection. Penrose also urged the Tate to buy Matisse's huge papier colle, The Snail. It caused a storm of controversy when it first went on view in 1962, but is now regarded as one of the Gallery's finest acquisitions. A similar furore surrounded Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam! when it was acquired in 1966. Using comic-strip imagery of warplanes on a massive scale, this huge picture made a wry comment on America's militarism and rapidly became an icon for those demonstrating against the Vietnam War outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Pop Art brought a new optimism and energy into the art world. The Tate acknowledged this by mounting exhibitions of work by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake. It developed a strong appeal to a young audience and its acquisitions kept pace with changes in artistic fashion. A well-informed younger generation of curators advised the purchase of key examples of Minimal and Conceptual art. Among these was Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (composed of 120 firebricks and nicknamed The Bricks) to which The Sunday Times drew attention in an article headed "The Tate Drops a Costly Brick". The controversy lasted for months.

In 1977, a pair of paintings by Stubbs, Haymakers and Reapers, came up for sale at pounds 800,000. This was more than the Tate could afford and it decided to mount a public appeal. Its success owed much to the quiet dignity of these two lyrical paintings. The final event was the conclusion of two lotteries, Glenda Jackson drawing the prize-winning tickets. The chairman, Lord Bulloch, in the course of his speech, threw in the cautionary remark that a public appeal, however successful, is not an ideal way to raise money. The publicity surrounding the Stubbs appeal may have encouraged the government to increase the purchase grant. It rose the next year by 77 per cent, and again by 55 per cent and 20 per cent in the two following years, reaching pounds l.9m in 1980.

When Alan Bowness took over as director in 1980, he wanted both to increase the breadth of the collection and to acquire major works of art. Partly because Reid had bought well in the abstract field, Bowness turned his attention to the figurative side of international modernism - the Surrealists, German Expressionists, Picasso and Pop Art. Further rises in the purchase grant took it to a peak in 1984/85 when it reached pounds 2,041,000 - a sum of money that made the Tate the envy of several world-class museums. But in subsequent years the allocation was reduced. In 1990, Bowness's successor, Nick Serota, had to make do with a sum of money that was less than what the government had allocated in 1980, although, during those 10 years, there had been a 10-fold rise in art prices.

Not surprisingly, the Tate has been very active of late in seeking additional funding from the private sector. Donations, bequests, gifts and presentations in lieu of tax have become increasingly important. The Tate tries to establish good relations with collectors and often enhances its displays with key loans from other public or private collections. But acquisitions remain the single most public and emotive dimension on which the Gallery is judged. They are nowadays the result of careful research, intelligent networking and a certain amount of wheeler-dealing. There are still those who accuse the Tate of buying too little too late, while others argue they acquire too much too soon. But, on the whole, the catholic nature of the current purchasing policy has confounded many of the Tate's critics. And now that a Carl Andre fetches around pounds 250,000 on the open market, the approximately pounds 2,000 supposedly paid for The Bricks in 1972 seems an undeniably good investment

`Tate Gallery: Illustrated History' by Frances Spalding will be published by the Tate in November

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