The Tate is considering occasional deaccessioning, in order to improve the representation of an artist’s work. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, director Sir Nicholas Serota said he personally felt that this would be a positive move, although the decision rests with the trustees. The idea would be “to ensure that we have as strong a representation of an artist as we can muster.”
Sir Nicholas points out that with living artists, the Tate is quite frequently in conversation with them about getting better pieces. “Sometimes we find they are not represented by the best examples of their work, or perhaps we find ourselves where we have two or three pieces which we are unlikely to show together, because they are close in type or whatever.” In these circumstances, and with the artist’s agreement, the Tate director would like to be able to sell in order to upgrade.
So far, this has never been done, although there have been exploratory talks with Sir Anthony Caro. The Tate has 18 sculptures by Caro, but it lacks a good representation of his table sculptures. The idea has therefore been discussed of selling some works to remedy this gap. Sir Howard Hodgkin is another artist who might be better represented in the collection (the Tate has nine of his paintings and 53 works on paper).
Dead artists are a more difficult problem. The Tate would, of course, have to abide by any conditions imposed by donors, and it would therefore be easier to consider deaccessioning pictures which had been purchased with gallery funds. “There would be no question of selling a Turner to buy a Hirst. It would either be upgrading the work of the same artist, or at least from the same period,” Sir Nicholas explained.
There are, however, legal restrictions on deaccessioning, since the Tate falls under the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act. This includes a clause allowing it to deaccession if an item is “unsuitable for retention”, a vague formulation which has rarely been used by museums. However, it might be possible to use this clause to upgrade an artist’s work. So far, however, it seems there has been no selling off by the Tate for at least 50 years.
The Tate has a new director of collections, Jan Debbaut, who is examining the question of upgrading and is due to report back in the spring. There will then be a new Tate chairman, Paul Myners, who takes over in April.
Although deaccessioning is only likely to be considered occasionally, it is now on the agenda.
• This article originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Tate considers selling art"