Fat cats in the park

Arts administrators cleaning up in the name of charity

In 2011, the Arts Council screamed daily that it was losing over 30% of its annual taxpayer subsidy. “Difficult decisions” and “hard choices” resulted in it cutting completely annual grants to 206 organisations, making many redundant. The Serpentine, meanwhile, was awarded the special status of “a regularly funded organization” – i.e. a reserved Pullman seat aboard the gravy train for life, and no questions asked.

At a time when fat cats in the City were being daily excoriated for awarding themselves huge pay increases and bonuses during a period of austerity for everyone else they had themselves caused, the two co-directors of the Serpentine (Julia Peyton-Jones since 1991 and Hans-Ulrich Obrist from 2006) were awarded wage increases of 67% and 47% respectively. This inflated their pay to £150,000 and £130,000 a year respectively, a hike which brought both of them within range of what the director of the Tate receives (£161,000); indeed Peyton-Jones earns more than the Prime Minister (£142,500). A quarter of the Serpentine’s basic annual grant from the Arts Council goes on two salaries. Both earn more than the director of Tate Modern (£120,000) and the director of Tate Britain (£89,000). Together they make twice what even the director of the National Gallery earns; £140,000. Heading a small gallery, formerly a tearoom in a park, is costing 74% more a year than


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Serota himself receives for running an organization with 60 times the turnover, 100s of times the size, and 15 times the number of visitors. Charity definitely begins at home at the Serpentine.

And why does the Serpentine need two directors anyway? No other minor public gallery needs more than one. On the contrary, they run their often bigger operations for the cost of half of one director at the Serpentine. Neither can Obrist claim to be anywhere near a full-time employee, given the impressive number of outside commissions he has undertaken during his tenure in the park. The Charity Commission, recently taken to task by the Audit Commission for complacency and incompetence, should urgently investigate this profligacy.

Neither do the directors deserve anywhere near what they receive, for their performance is lamentably below average. It’s not even as though they have a difficult job. Over the last few 404 Not Found years half of their main exhibitions have dealt with either Tate trustees or Turner Prize winners or nominees. How difficult is it to draw up a list of those kinds of candidates for exhibition? Dawdling, one could pencil in a year’s exhibitions of that kind over coffee. Their programme is unimaginative and otherwise overly concerned with foreign artists many of us have never heard of and the standard of whose work is on the face of it unexceptional. They have staged no retrospectives of deserving British artists of the kind which were regularly organised by previous regimes, and which made the place unavoidably important. In those days it could at least argue that some public service was being performed. Nowadays, it succours only dealers and rich collectors.

The current exhibition (until February 9th) features Jake and Dinos Chapman. The brothers have shown recently at the Royal Academy, Tates Britain and Liverpool, the ICA and the British Museum. So why do they need another exhibition at the subsidised Serpentine when their own commercial dealer, White Cube, runs two big premises in central London? Apparently, it requires support from a charity to showcase works by artists already widely exhibited and who are among the wealthiest and most exhibited in contemporary art. This is not ‘Charity’ by any currently known definition of the term.

For all its millions in public subsidy (and don’t forget it has also collected no fewer than twelve National Lottery awards) the Serpentine fails conspicuously in two respects: for a charity it costs too much to run, is overmanned and pays its top staff double the going rate; secondly, it doesn’t show enough work by British artists of the kind who are deserving but rarely exhibited.

The Serpentine does no service to the wider community of British artists and its public subsidy should be immediately suspended.

David Lee