The spin of art

Michael Daley describes how the main players in State Art have taken spin to a new level.

Many people remain in awe at the legendary manipulative means by which the political spinmaster, Alastair Campbell, delivered to successive New Labour governments the media coverage they craved. What is not sufficiently appreciated is that compared with art world practitioners of those dark arts, Campbell was an also-ran. Some years ago, when our critical comments on the restoration of a Turner at the Tate were reported in a newspaper, we received a phone call at home from the gallery’s director, Nicholas Serota, demanding to know why we were, as he put it, “so hostile” to his gallery. When we asked why his conservation staff had been less than frank on the radical nature of their restoration, he rang off abruptly, but we knew that he knew that our card had been marked. Discussing the incident with colleagues, we learned that such seemingly intimidating phone calls to critics were common.

Serota’s thin-skinned combativeness led him to invite the dealer, Jay Jopling, on to a “secret Tate committee” to change then prevalent press coverage of trendy contemporary art. Jopling later disclosed how, to thwart negative accounts, the tabloid press were fed a stream of colourful stories that presented these artists not as incompetents but as larky, larger-than-life characters, who made big waves without ever taking themselves seriously. Arts correspondents were invited to see the “Biggest fish and chips in the world” at a preview of Damien Hirst’s shark tank at which journalists were plied with paper cones of posh French fries. Tate-friendly art critics on broadsheet newspapers set about persuading their editors that attacking avant-garde artists made their papers look down-market and “tabloid”. The ploys worked: instead of incredulous “You call this art?” coverage, newspapers were flooded with entertaining tales of whacky new art world celebs “having a larf” at The Establishment and getting rich to boot. At the posh end of Fleet Street distinguished columnists who wrote critical articles were precisely blocked by editors fearful of “looking tabloid”. The scene was set for British Junk Art to go global – as Christie’s quickly appreciated.

By neutralising the provocations of public sector artists making their names by spitting in the eyes of the public, those artists were turned successively into household names; art market powerhouses; national treasures; and even “iconic” public mascots fit to meet prime ministers and the Queen. If bigging-up art markets counts as a success, for the individual spinmaster the ultimate triumph is turning institutional calamities into perceived triumphs. In this department the Tate is the clear field leader. It boasts no fewer than a dozen press and PR staff, and no fewer than 16 “directors” when, in reality there is only one – Sir Nicholas Serota, who has honed art promotional skills throughout his presently 26 years-long reign of tenure.

The most audacious conversion occurred in 2002 at a moment of great crisis at the Tate. As we described here in 2011-12, in 1994 two Turner paintings had been stolen in 1994 when lent to an insecure regional arts centre in Germany (see Michael Daley, “Ransom or Reward?” Jackdaws 99, 100 & 101). The Tate had taken the insurance money (£24m) and invested it so as to be able to buy back the paintings on their recovery. However, on the insistence of a Government Treasury minister, Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson, the insurers were bullied into accepting less than a third of that insurance money and accrued interest in exchange for the Tate’s right to have the paintings on their recovery. This netted the Tate £22m at the insurers’ expense. It was done, the Minister said, to help meet Tate Modern’s rising building costs. Out of this ill-gotten windfall the Tate paid a £3m+ gangsters’ ransom demand.

Although the paintings had been sent to Germany on Serota’s personal instruction without an accompanying courier, the task of recovering them was given to Sandy Nairne, the Tate’s Director of Programmes who was responsible for administrative restructuring in preparation for Tate Modern’s opening. Nairne, disappointed not to have been given the directorship of Tate Modern, left the Tate to become director of the National Portrait Gallery. In 2011 he published a remarkably informative book (Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners) on the eight-year-long recovery operation. At one point, with half the ransom paid, one of the Turners had been recovered and secretly returned to Britain. Nairne wanted to release the news. Serota refused on the grounds that by holding back until both were recovered it would be possible to achieve a spectacular publicity coup. Hitherto, Serota said, most of the Tate’s “positive” press coverage had not been real news but “merely promotional material”.

However, there was a serious threat to a first-ever genuine Good-News Story. As Nairne put it, “…someone had talked to the senior crime writer on the Mail on Sunday. He had heard that the painting was back in London… It was imperative to have help with press inquiries… On Nick’s advice, we brought in press consultant Erica Bolton.” (Readers of Jackdaws 112-115 will recall that Bolton & Quinn Ltd was called in at the tiny Serpentine Gallery to help its five-strong press department throttle imminent press coverage of The Jackdaw’s disclosure that astronomically high salaries were being paid to the gallery’s two directors.)

The Tate’s top brass were groomed to deflect hard journalistic questions should news of the partial recovery get out. To the straight question “How much has this operation cost Tate?” the ideal answer was to be: “The combined costs over eight and a half years including insurance, travel, legal fees and investigative expensive accounts amounts to just over three and a half million pounds. Tate took on the additional costs for the investigation when it acquired the title of the two works in 1998.”

This answer (almost identical to one given to ArtWatch UK by the Tate’s then Chairman, Lord Myners) concealed the reality that the “additional costs” comprised the £3.1m ransom payment to gangsters, permission for which had been sought and given at a secret High Court hearing. In response to an imminent threat of exposure in the Mail on Sunday and an already published damaging disclosure by Geoffrey Robinson that the Tate was pursuing connections with a “particularly nasty bunch” of Serbian gangsters, Bolton drafted a press release in November 2000. It read:

“There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of two paintings by Turner stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course, I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the Tate. Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.”

On the strictest possible usage, the last point was true: the already recovered Turner had not yet been returned to the Tate – instead, it had been hidden in a commercial store. Nairne does not say whether or not the Tate flatly denied the claims to the Mail but, either way, the subterfuge worked: the well-sourced and accurate story did not appear and the “Genuinely Good News Story” was broken at a triumphant press conference two years later on recovery of the second Turner.

One of the commonest sources of museum world controversy (and therefore of PR spinning) is picture restoration. Another is attacks on works. On July 20th, 2011 we reported on the Artwatch UK website that the day before two Poussin paintings were attacked at the National Gallery. An artist visitor to the Tate who complained to a warder about people standing in front of paintings while having their photographs taken, was told that this was now allowed because staff cut-backs made it impossible to enforce the gallery’s own rules. Children had been reported treating a Donald Judd work as a climbing frame.

When a visitor defaced a Mark Rothko painting at Tate Modern with a permanent marker pen on October 7th, 2012 a spokeswoman minimised the attack: “We can confirm that at 15.25 this afternoon there was an incident at Tate Modern in which a visitor defaced one of Rothko’s Seagram murals by applying a small area of black paint with a brush to the painting.” When the work was returned last month after the restoration the spin was different. The Guardian reported that “Tate Modern yesterday revealed the successful results of one of its most difficult restoration projects.” All restorations are spun in such terms. Restorers have been drilled by their trade associations on planting Good News Stories of miraculous discoveries and recoveries made during restorations. (The British Museum, under Neil MacGregor, Serota’s only, if less abrasively prominent, rival-in-spin, has run courses for restorers with co-opted professional arts journalists advising on the planting of restoration stories in the media.) The Tate issued a press release to a Turner exhibition that presented a restoration-wrecked picture, which had lost one of its two steamboats, as the star of the exhibition. On the Rothko incident, Serota duly described the Tate’s restoration team as one of the best in the world but on the laxness of Tate security he was unrepentant: “It is very important for us not to turn into Fort Knox. We are a gallery not a prison.”

Although Serota’s loyal lieutenants come and go at the Tate (Sandy Nairne, as mentioned, to the National Portrait Gallery, and, in 2010, Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain, to the Art Fund) they are not necessarily lost to the gallery ideologically or financially.  Deuchar now serves as director of the Art Fund under a chairman, David Verey, who was previously the chairman of the Tate’s board. Shortly before leaving the Tate for the Art Fund, Verey advised Serota to get more funding for already-bought paintings by Chris Ofili, so as to reduce the embarrassing proportion being paid by the Tate for a mass purchase of one of its own trustees’ works.  Serota did so by applying for assistance to the Art Fund – against its clearly stated rules – for a cool £75,000, which he was given under the new chairmanship of Verey. When the hugely embarrassing news of this improper payment broke, Serota offered to pay the money back, but the Art Fund said it could be kept, notwithstanding the breach of its rules.

When Deuchar arrived at the Art Fund in January 2010, he promptly announced a new ideological broom: money would no longer be used exclusively to help buy important works of art for the nation: “I have ideas for taking the Art Fund [previously known as the National Art Collections Fund] in new directions” – one being “investing in people, alongside objects” (emphasis added).

At Deuchar’s leaving party at the Tate, Nicholas Serota said to him: “We feel that our friendship to you will be amply repaid.” In January 2010, the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins noted: “The gallery has just announced that it has been able to buy eight beautiful (if disturbing) William Blake works on paper… with the help of a £141,000 grant from the Art Fund, now run by Stephen Deuchar [who] stepped down as director of Tate Britain in December, with Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, quipping that they expected to be the happy recipients of the charity’s largesse. And so, reader, it has come to pass – just a little bit quicker than expected.”

If the Tate was not disappointed financially, nor will it have been disappointed ideologically as Deuchar pushed at a door already ajar. In 2001 the ‘conceptualist’ Martin Creed was awarded the Tate’s £20,000 Turner Prize for a “work” consisting of nothing other than a device to switch lights on and off continuously. When Madonna handed over the check at the Tate award ceremony, she said: “I want to support any artist who not only has something to say but who has the balls to say it.” Creed seems to have taken her literally: in 2005 he sold 800 variously sized balls to the Scottish National Gallery for Modern Art for £31,500, of which the Art fund contributed £11,500. As the Art Fund puts it today, Creed’s balls had been assembled so as to “roll free for the viewer to interact with.”

Last year Creed’s prices received a hike: the Art Fund gave the Tate £40,000 to help buy a £122,000 “work” called Lights Going On and Off, the very work with which Creed had won the 2001 Turner Prize. Thus, in little more than a decade, a work which consists of nothing but is now described by the Art Fund as being “widely considered to be the signature work of one of the best known artists of his generation”, has been “saved” for the nation. On top of the money, the Art Fund generates Tate-friendly promotional literature for Creed by publishing an interview with him by Michael Craig-Martin, a former Tate and a present Art Fund trustee.

On the back of such in-depth, officially endorsed vacuity, Christies feel emboldened to offer another version of Creed’s on-off work at a sale on July 1st with a guide price of £70,000. For this, a purchaser would receive nothing other than a certificate of “authenticity” giving permission, as Chris Hastings reported in the Mail on Sunday (June 8th, 2014), to use the idea. Copyright law holds that it is not possible to steal ideas, only a particular means of their expression or realisation. Anyone buying this work will, therefore, acquire the valueless part – the idea – but not its historically unique original means of expression (at the Tate). As we were quoted by the Mail as saying, this is “only art in the narrow, loopy confines of the modern contemporary art establishment. Christie’s are just selling pretentious junk to chumps who want to buy into ‘cool’”. Christie’s can of course shrug off all criticisms: on this basis the auction house will be able to sell certificates of authenticity on any of Creed’s hundred of works. Any number of people might wish to pay to buy permission to run up and down the Tate’s Duveen galleries, or to screw up A4 sheets of paper, or ring lots of bells simultaneously. State-sponsored art hype might strike many as state-sponsored tripe, but when combined with the hype of art market institutions it produces perfect money-making machines that can extract wealth from notions as ineffably precious as the licensed fictive possession of a past event.

In May, Stephen Deuchar explained at a Mellon Centre conference that, although founded to buy traditional art forms, the Art Fund would now pursue newer concepts and had “generously funded” a Martin Creed project. As seen, it has funded many already. Coinciding with Christie’s July auction, Creed’s works are running at the Quay Arts Centre in Newport between June and September in a so-called “Artist Rooms” travelling exhibition. This follows another such at the Tate earlier this year which consisted of… lights going on and off. This Artists’ Rooms series of touring exhibitions is specifically aimed at inducting young people “primarily those aged 13-25” into the delights of modernism. Art world PR does not come darker or more blatantly propagandistic than this. The scheme was created with works donated by the dealer Anthony d’Offay and funded by the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland on the express purpose of “engaging young people with the art of our time [sic] in order to inspire future generations.” Creed was not part of the scheme but, in order to be so, he donated a roomful of works in 2008, including… his lights going on and off. The Art Fund website promotes the present exhibition as: “Bringing together his works…[so as to offer] audiences the opportunity to experience Creed’s witty, joyful vision of the world around us.” That’s as maybe – but the hype does not disclose how much this latest “investment in people” has cost. Creed was given a retrospective show at the Hayward Gallery this year, called “What’s the point”. When asked what the point of the show was, Creed replied that he doesn’t know. Mandarins and auctioneers of the Tate-stream of contemporary art will know only too well.

 Michael Daley

The Jackdaw, 2014