Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Why are Britain’s public galleries spurning the generosity of Charles Saatchi? This week it was reported that the collector’s personal treasury of late-20th-century British art, worth an estimated £30m and offered two years ago as a gift to the nation, has had no takers.A proposed deal with Arts Council England has proved elusive. More bizarrely, Tate galleries appear to have rejected Saatchi’s offer, as well.
According to a spokesperson for the Saatchi gallery in London: “Nick Serota asked to see the proposal for the gift and a list of all the works which we sent him. He never replied so we took that to mean he wasn’t interested.” A spokesperson for Tate told the Guardian the galleries had not wished to intervene in ongoing discussions with the arts council. Either way, two years on, Saatchi’s gift is without a home. The collector now plans to establish a foundation for the art works, and to appoint a board of trustees to manage it.
I find this snub baffling. There is plenty in Saatchi’s collection that would surely become a visitor highlight at either Tate Modern or Tate Britain in London, not to mention the Tate galleries in Liverpool and St Ives. Is Tate Britain really so rich in contemporary wonders that it can afford to spurn Saatchi’s collection of Grayson Perry ceramics, or the Chapman brothers’ Tragic Anatomies or Tracey Emin’s My Bed? Emin’s bed caused a sensation at Tate Britain in 1999, when it was exhibited in the artist’s Turner prize show. Why wouldn’t they want it as a permanent exhibit?
Saatchi’s offer also includes Richard Wilson’s tank of glittering, eerily reflective black sump oil, 20:50. Emin’s bed has its detractors. But 20:50, first created at Matt’s Gallery in 1987, is not a piece of “young British art”, a part of YBA culture; it does not represent an art trend or a celebrity artist. For me, it is simply a modern masterpiece, a contemporary classic. So why doesn’t Tate Modern want it? The Bankside museum has just opened a sublime new space called, for God’s sake, The Tanks. 20:50 could have been commissioned for it.
Perhaps there have been arguments behind the scenes about curatorial influence (Saatchi loves to curate: does he want a say in how galleries show his collection?) Perhaps there have been quibbles about obligations to show the work continuously, rather than keeping it in storage. This is speculation: those involved have said they do not wish to comment further.
But I do know that Tate prides itself on a very different aesthetic take on contemporary art from that identified with Saatchi. The Tanks, for instance, opened with a festival of live art. Love it or loathe it, this is the kind of stuff Saatchi would not touch with a bargepole. His art collecting in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when he was central to new British art, was strong on shocks and thrills, low on the sort of cultural theory that loves such forms as live art. By contrast, Tate has tended to champion what it sees as the “real” international avant garde, artists who are big on theory, and weaker when it comes to image-making power.
Tate did not light the fire of modern British art; Saatchi did. It was he who threw money at Damien Hirst when he was young and new and dangerous – and genuinely worth paying attention to. If art is about the new, we ought to have greater respect for Saatchi’s championing of the Young British Artists, at a time when they really were young. The Tate made no such bold commitment, and now appears to want to write his achievement out of history.
A legacy of startling, provoking and occasionally genuinely great art stands as a testimony to Saatchi’s guts. It is idiotic to reject his gift.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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