Tate considers selling its art for first time in 50 years

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The Tate is considering selling off works of art for the first time in half a century in an attempt to plug the gaping holes in its collections of contemporary artists.

The aim would be to sell works by living artists, such as David Hockney or Howard Hodgkin, and buy others by the same artists to improve the range and quality of pieces the gallery holds.

Although Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, sees the idea as a positive way of ensuring the strongest possible collections, it would inevitably resurrect the row over funding for British galleries.

Most people in the art world lament the lack of money available for acquisitions, and Sir Nicholas has complained about how the Tate is offered works nearly every day that it cannot even contemplate buying.

"The public expects major British artists to be represented properly in the Tate collection, but we are unable to do that," he said.

There are strict rules on what Britain's national museums and galleries are allowed to do with their works. They are allowed to sell or dispose of works - what is known as deaccessioning - under the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act if an item is "unsuitable for retention".

The Tate believes that selling works to upgrade the collection is permissible under these rules, although this interpretation could be open to challenges.

Informal discussions are understood to have been held with the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro about selling some of the 18 sculptures the Tate holds to help remedy a lack of his smaller table sculptures.

Other artists are keen to support the Tate if it does decide to sell because they want their best work to be available for the public. The large number of purchases of younger British artists by Charles Saatchi, for instance, means that stars such as Damien Hirst are not well represented in Britain's most famous contemporary art gallery. Sir Nicholas told The Art Newspaper: "Sometimes we find they [artists] are not represented by the best examples of their work, or perhaps we find ourselves where we have two or three pieces which we are unlikely to show together, because they are close in type or whatever."

In these circumstances, and with the artist's permission, the gallery would hope to sell to make other purchases - and might still buy old works, if they were important.

The issue would be different for dead artists, but pieces the gallery had bought for itself might be considered for deaccessioning. Sir Nicholas added: "There would be no question of selling a Turner to buy a Hirst. It would either be upgrading the work of the same artist, or at least from the same period."

The trustees have held discussions about the move but no decision has yet been taken. Jan Debbaut, the new director of collections, is examining the question and is due to report back to them in the spring.

However, gallery sources said that the practice is common internationally and a working party of the National Museum Directors' Conference last year produced a report, Too Much Stuff, which challenged the idea that items must be kept forever. "Museums should therefore be willing to dispose of objects when this will better ensure their preservation, ensure that they are more widely used and enjoyed, or place them in a context where they are more valued and better understood," the report said.

But at least one gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, which is the contemporary wing of the Smithsonian in Washington, refuses to sell living artists for fear of affecting market prices.

David Barrie, of the National Art Collections Fund charity which has helped the Tate buy many works, said there was a case for sales in the very limited set of circumstances the gallery was considering.

"But we would absolutely oppose, and I'm sure the Tate would oppose, the idea of disposing of a work of art in order to get running costs," he said.

He said he thought that the scope for significantly boosting the Tate's contemporary collection would be limited. Many works were acquired in recent years from bequests or with outside help from sources such as the fund or the lottery, so consultations would be needed.

The Tate currently has no dedicated fund for acquisitions and is increasingly dependent on donors and charities for help.

Hockney's popularity makes works worth more to gallery

David Hockney, 66, has become one of Britain's most popular and versatile artists with a worldwide reputation for his bold and colourful canvases and watercolours.

The Tate owns 98 works, although most of these are on paper. Of seven paintings in its collection, the majority date from the early years of his fame in the 1960s, including acclaimed works such as A Bigger Splash from 1967 and, slightly later, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy from 1970-1971. The most recent work the Tate owns dates from 1977. Despite the paucity of works from recent years, the gallery's last purchase of Hockney seven years ago was also an early work, Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style dating from 1961.

The absence of paintings from the collection can be explained in two ways. Hockney has spent much time in recent decades experimenting with works on paper - both with photography and, in the past few years, portraiture in drawings and in watercolour. But his popularity has also made his works increasingly expensive.

In November 2002, a portrait of Nick Wilder, painted in 1966, was sold at Christie's in New York for £1.8m, a record price for the artist. The market's enthusiasm for this period of Hockney's work, when he was picturing his subjects by sun-drenched Californian swimming pools, is good news, given what the Tate already owns. But the enthusiasm for Hockney's work also explains why it has been unable to buy recent bigger pieces.