Philip Hensher: Brilliant art, scandalous conflict of interest

For the Tate to have acquired a work of art by one of its trustees is blatantly improper
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The Independent Online

Mr Ofili is a trustee of the Tate, and, I am certain, a very effective and important one. Apart from his innate distinction as a painter, his commitment to, and interest in, non-Western cultures can only be useful to the Tate, considering its future direction. One of the main problems a museum like the Tate has is how to broaden its appeal outside its white, middle-class, middle-aged audience. Mr Ofili, who evidently engages with a very wide range of art, can only help provide solutions other than the painfully obvious ones.

In either role, Mr Ofili deserves our admiration. But none of that is remotely relevant to the extraordinary situation. For the Tate to have acquired a work of art by one of its trustees is blatantly improper; I cannot imagine how they thought that such a scandalous conflict of interest would go unnoticed.

Some of the correspondence relating to the acquisition has been made public, and it makes enlightening reading. In 2002, Mr Ofili's dealer, Victoria Miro, wrote to say that "as Chris is getting married next week... I suspect he may be less willing than previously to wait for an extended period in terms of finance. Evidently, especially as Chris is a trustee, this is a sensitive situation."

Although there is no sign that the Tate paid any attention to the consideration that Mr Ofili wanted a large sum of money in one go because he was getting married, this is an absolutely extraordinary letter to send to a publicly funded institution, and it makes one wonder about the tone of the negotiations as a whole.

If you try to imagine any other public body entering into comparable discussions - let us say a government department considering a PFI project, and deciding to award it to a company where the relevant minister sits on the board, and being asked to pay the fees up front because the minister was shortly getting married... No, it's completely inconceivable.

Though the sum of money paid for the work of art is hardly to the point, and it accurately reflects the value of Mr Ofili's work in the market, one might as well know that it was £705,000. The Tate could not, or would not, pay that, and in the end contributed £225,000, the remainder being made up by donations.

Nevertheless, the principle is the thing. Some amusement has been extracted out of the fact that Mr Ofili recently urged fellow artists to donate works of art to the Tate, with the implication that he ought to have done exactly that. I disagree entirely. It seems to me completely improper that the Tate should acquire works of art by its trustees in any circumstances; whether they paid £705,000 for it, £225,000, or accepted it as a gift. The role of the trustees is to decide whether works of art should be acquired or accepted, and they regularly refuse proposed gifts.

The fact is that a trustee should not have any kind of double role, and it beggars belief that the Tate does not have the sort of rudimentary guards against conflicts of interest which any other public body will have in place from the start. The point that Mr Ofili is a very good artist, and The Last Supper a fine work is completely immaterial. Enough people think that the contemporary art world is driven by backscratching that a public gallery should be very concerned if its conduct backs up that doubtful proposition.

But it is worrying that major arts institutions - not all, but certainly some - seem from time to time to lapse into the sort of dubious conduct which no public body ought to countenance. No one ever seems to object.

Perhaps it's a sign of the English fundamental lack of interest in how the arts conduct themselves. Perhaps it's a vague fear of being labelled a philistine - after all, I'm sure plenty of professionals, reading this, would just start saying: "But Chris Ofili is a very, very good artist."

But organisations which disburse public money, on however small a scale, have a definite responsibility. Last year, the way the Royal Opera House put on a vanity project of the conductor Lorin Maazel's, an opera based on Nineteen Eighty-Four, was completely disgraceful. Even more disgraceful was their defence, that Mr Maazel's underwriting of the project allowed them to spend comparatively little on it; they didn't seem to see how scandalous it was to allow public money, or the time and resources of a public institution, to be used to further the private project of a very rich man.

I long for the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office to take an interest in one of these small but interesting events. Such an investigation might persuade an arts institution to instigate some necessarily inflexible principles.

As it is, it sometimes seems as if the only people permitted to pass judgement on the organisations are within the organisations themselves; the Tate trustees and administration, Victoria Miro, and Chris Ofili all asking themselves: "Did I act properly? Yes, I believe I did; and anyone who doesn't believe me must be a vulgar philistine." That, surely, is the most glaring conflict of interest of all.