Tate director walks out as cash row ends 'year of misery'

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The Independent Online

Jan Debbaut's decision to step down at the end of February is another piece of bad news for the gallery and its director, Sir Nicholas Serota, after the still-simmering row over the acquisition of a work by the Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili, at a time when he was a Tate trustee. A spokeswoman insisted yesterday that Mr Debbaut's departure had nothing whatever to do with the recent rows. "It's a personal thing with Jan. He loved doing the curating, but hated the management," she said.

Nevertheless, minutes of Tate board meetings make it clear that Mr Debbaut had concerns about the financial affairs of the gallery, some of which were highlighted by the Ofili affair. The minutes reveal some of the problems he has faced in the past couple of years, principally the lack of money for new works.

The issue came to a head after the acquisition of The Upper Room by Ofili for £720,000. Criticisms were levelled against the Tate for the lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest in its dealings with Victoria Miro, Ofili's dealer, who was asked to find wealthy donors to support the purchase. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is now examining what happened amid claims that procedures need to be tightened. The gallery is also in talks with the Charity Commission over the concerns.

But minutes detailing a report by Mr Debbaut to the board in May last year show why wealthy donors are required and go some way to explaining its protracted negotiations - over more than two years - with Ms Miro.

The minutes show Mr Debbaut's analysis of the resources available to him "revealed some disturbing trends". The Tate's buying power had declined, as had the amount of grant devoted to acquisitions, leading the gallery to become increasingly dependent on external funding. "This meant relying on an increasingly fragmented and complex funding system," according to the minutes. Mr Debbaut reminded trustees that when he was appointed he observed that the pressure on Tate's resources meant that it was "all the more important to set priorities and to pursue a focused programme of acquisitions".

He successfully argued for a faster and clearer decision-making process. That was implemented at the beginning of May last year - more than a year before the eventual purchase of The Upper Room.

Since the row over Ofili broke more than two months ago it has emerged that the gallery has bought several works by serving trustees including Michael Craig-Martin, Peter Doig, Bill Woodrow and Gillian Wearing. Sir Nicholas stressed in his Turner Prize speech that such acquisitions had been made since the 1950s, but had been made in recent years "only in exceptional circumstances". Although conceding there might be room for improvement in procedures, Sir Nicholas said he defied anybody who saw The Upper Room, a series of 13 paintings in their own tailor-made gallery, not to agree with the decision to buy it.

Many in the art world believe that the Tate did not handle the affair as well as it should have done but doubt that there was any real wrongdoing.

Martin Bailey, in the latest edition of the respected trade title, The Art Newspaper, said: "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." Mr Debbaut said: "I am proud of what I have achieved at Tate but I now want to be able to devote more time to working on curatorial projects. I look forward to curating the major Gilbert and George retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007 and the subsequent tour of the show in Europe and America."

Sir Nicholas said: "Jan has made an extremely valuable contribution to Tate in introducing a wider European perspective to our collecting. During his period at Tate we have strengthened the significant Arte Povera collection in adding works by Pistoletto, Fabro and Merz as well as expanding the Latin American collection. We also secured The Archers, one of the masterpieces of Reynolds."