David Lister: Why is the Tate risking our cash?

Saturday 16 January 2010 01:00

I try to imagine the Tate's esteemed director Sir Nicholas Serota taking some of his gallery's cash reserves, £6m worth, and walking into Ladbrokes with them. Nope, it couldn't happen. Sir Nicholas is not only too brilliant a gallery director, but he is also too cautious, sensible and law-abiding a man to take the risk. And the only horses he's interested in are by Stubbs.

But is the story about the Tate's finances that was reported this week so very different from a flutter at the bookies? It emerged in Tate accounts released last Monday that the gallery trustees lost £1m investing in hedge funds. As The Independent headline put it: "Tate museum's stock market flutter falls short." With a delicious, no, make that depressing, irony, the trustees included not just a star banker from Goldman Sachs but also the Treasury minister Lord Myners.

At its peak the Tate held a quarter of all its investments in hedge funds, £6m of its £27m, almost five times the amount a typical pension fund or insurance company would normally put into them. The Tate sold the assets at a 17 per cent loss.

Our great arts institutions, even though they are charitable foundations, have to invest the money that they have, I suppose, and make it grow. We are undoubtedly entering a difficult time for arts funding, whichever party gets into power at the general election. New strategies are needed. Indeed, only two days ago, the shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at a national conference in London on the state of the arts that a Tory government would reward those arts institutions that set up endowments by giving them five-year funding settlements.

But hedge funds are an altogether riskier option, a high-risk gamble, especially for such a large percentage of an arts institution's investments. Am I being naive to say that I like to maintain a comforting old-fashioned vision of the Tate's trustees using taxpayers' money to buy pictures and maintain the building, rather than play the market? And not only play the market, but all importantly play with a type of fund that is widely acknowledged to be high risk, and put a far higher percentage of investment into it than a typical insurance company or pension fund would.

The money that the Tate feels does need to be invested, rather than spent on improving the collection, buildings and other services, could surely be invested with more caution. Perhaps one good thing to come out of the current financial mess in the country, and around the world, is that the public is questioning the financial management of national institutions more. Art lovers rarely questioned how a gallery used and invested its (our) money. Art lovers tend to focus on the art.

Like many, many others I pay towards the Tate twice over, first as a taxpayer and also as a Tate member. I have to admit that, because I love visiting the institution and because it is has been so successful artistically, it had never occurred to me to question before what the Tate was doing with my money. There I was assuming they were putting it towards discovering the next Picasso, or even buying an old Picasso.

I hadn't realised that they were gambling with my cash. I could have done that myself and cut out the middlemen.

Give the first Mrs Pinter her due

Antonia Fraser's new book on her marriage to Harold Pinter not surprisingly shows scant sympathy for Pinter's first wife, the late actress Vivien Merchant. She describes Merchant's refusal to sign a decree absolute as "a final flick of the serpent's tail". More surprisingly, the many reviews and articles on the book are also fairly dismissive of Merchant, usually referring to her as bitter or as an alcoholic.

It is sad if a bitter alcoholic is how history will remember her. Vivien Merchant was the definitive Pinter actress. Her creation of the lead female roles in his plays The Homecoming and Old Times saw her give disturbing and haunting performances which set the template for those who followed her, just as her Oscar-nominated performance in the film Alfie, as the shattered unfaithful wife who had to have an abortion, almost stole the movie.

It is as a remarkable actress that she should be remembered.

Unsporting behaviour, Jeeves

The big story in the sporting press this week was of the Texan director of Liverpool football club, Tom Hicks Jnr, who resigned after an outcry about an email he sent to a disgruntled fan who had been haranguing him. Mr Hicks emailed the fan with the words: "Blow me fuck face."

I think that Mr Hicks should have pleaded a cultural defence. "Blow me," he should have argued is a quaint old English phrase, used by Bertie Wooster, and much loved by anglophile Texans. Admittedly, "fuck face" would be harder to explain away.

But I have sympathy with Mr Hicks. Even in the supposedly refined world of the arts, we cultural commentators receive highly personal and highly abusive emails, always signed with a blogger's nickname rather than a real name and address. And it can be tempting to reply in kind. In future I shall reply: "Well, blow me!" In true Bertie Wooster fashion, of course.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments