Tate members accuse Serota of ‘misrepresentation’ over BP questions at AGM

14 May 2013 admin

images-1In December last year, a number of Tate Members wrote a letter to the Tate Members Council to raise concerns about the controversial sponsorship deal with BP, and some of those signatories went to the Tate Members AGM to discuss the issues face to face.

The AGM was again dominated by the issue, with critical questions coming from many different quarters and not just the signatories. You can read the full transcript of the questions here. The Members Council and Serota were told:

“I think it is a bit of a get out clause to suggest that all money is dirty or tainted. I think it quickly collapses the argument down to an impossibility because you are then saying because all money is tainted that we cannot have a discussion about the ethics of a particular company.  And it is clear that there are some lines to be drawn. I am not sure how Tate would feel about accepting money from tobacco companies. I am not sure how Tate would feel about accepting money from pornographers. There has been some controversy recently about whether art institutions would accepting money from arms dealers. And so on.

So it does not do the debate any favours to say that all money is dirty as this is a debate about the ethics of a very particular company that is involved in a specific set of circumstances that is taking us to edge of climate catastrophe that we can’t withdraw from.

Regardless of where the Tate’s finances are in the next five years, regardless of where the recession is in five years time, whether there be a recovery and more government spending or not, the damage BP doing to the planet and everyone is irrevocable. Now is time – for governments are really clearly failing in Doha to deal with the situation in climate talks – for institutions like Tate to accept responsibility in allowing BP to continue green-wash their devastating practices.”

To which Serota replied:

I entirely respect that view. And you are absolutely right that Tate Trustees do draw a line. They are simply not drawing it where you would like it to be drawn at present. We don’t accept money from tobacco companies. We don’t accept money from arms manufacturers. We don’t accept money that has been laundered. They have debated, very seriously, as a Board, and as an Ethics Committee, whether or not they should accept the money that has been offered by BP. And they take a different view from you. And they obviously recognise that the institution has to live with the consequences of that. And, if, in some people’s eyes, that means we are failing then I have to accept that we will be seen as failing by certain people. But that is the position of the Trustees as currently stated.

Tate has the largest cultural membership scheme in the country, and Tate derives £5 million every year from membership fees, so you think it would take seriously the concerns of those members when they express dissatisfaction with being associated with disreputable entities like BP. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have been the case.

In a follow-up letter that the Tate members have sent today (which you can read below), they express a great deal of disappointment with how their concerns have been handled – from the attitude of Council chair Jon Snow during the meeting, to how Nick Serota went on to represent the AGM at the subsequent Tate Trustees meeting, to the fact that the Members Council assured the members that the issues would be discussed in February, but three months later on they still haven’t received any update on it.

I wonder if a letter from BP raising concerns about any aspect of the Tate relationship would get the same sort of treatment.


Dear Tate Members Council,

We’re writing a follow up to the letter that we sent on the 15th of November 2012, and to request a meeting with Tate Members Council in person to discuss our concerns. First and foremost we’d like to express our disappointment that almost 5 months after sending this letter we have had no substantial response to our questions other than an acknowledgement that the issues we raised would be discussed at a meeting of the Council. We understand from Monica Thomas, the membership officer, that a response is forthcoming, (it is worth noting that Monica Thomas acted impeccably in responding to our inquiry) which we’re looking forward to seeing. However, we are disappointed that Tate Members Council met two and a half months ago but we have not been informed as to the outcome of that meeting. It feels that our concerns as Tate members have not been taken seriously.

We also wanted to write in light of a transcript recently being made available of the Tate Members AGM that we have attached to this letter. There are a number of issues that we’d like to raise in the context of this transcript.

Firstly, in the AGM, Nicholas Serota said: “I will convey what you have just put forward to Trustees.”

However, in the minutes from the Tate Board of Trustees meeting in January Item 6.13, it states that trustees “were informed that the meeting [Tate Members AGM 7 December 2012] had been attended by representatives of Liberate Tate who had asked several questions and were given the time to do so by the chairman of Tate Members.”

We feel that identifying us as members of the art collective Liberate Tate is a misrepresentation and possibly a means of down-playing the extent of the criticisms that various Tate members had made of BP sponsorship during the AGM. If you read the transcript, nobody self-identifies as being from Liberate Tate, and none of the signatories of this letter, some of whom had attended the AGM in person to raise the issues are members of Liberate Tate. In the discussion that we had after the AGM, it seems that only one of the 14 members who spoke to the issue of BP sponsorship during the AGM is a Tate member who is also from Liberate Tate.

Furthermore, the Tate Trustee minutes fail to convey the fact that there was a lot of support (not to mention applause) from many different quarters during the AGM on the BP sponsorship issue being raised.

As a result of this inaccuracy we have lost faith somewhat in Mr Serota’s promise to “convey what you have just put forward to Tate Trustees.” So we’d like to make an official request to have the minutes of the Trustees meeting changed to accurately reflect what happened during the Tate Members AGM and we also request that copies of the transcript of the AGM be sent to each of the Tate Trustees as it is a much more accurate representation of what actually took place.

Secondly, we regrettably want to register our disappointment in regard to the way in which the Tate Members Council chair Jon Snow responded to the issues that we raised during the meeting. We have a lot of respect for Jon Snow and the work he does for good causes, but those of us who attended in the AGM in person felt that he had been somewhat patronizing about our concerns. We feel that we attended the meeting with very legitimate concerns, and to be told by Mr Snow that “If you are talking about morality, well, once you get into morality you’re in a very big place,” or to suggest that we should read George Bernard Shaw feels like a means of dismissing any basis of what we had to say rather than attempting to engage with the content.

Furthermore, as Tate members we understand that Tate Members Council has responsibility to facilitate what we have to say to Tate as an institution. We were surprised therefore that Jon Snow appeared to be standing in opposition to our views, particularly in light of Nicolas Serota’s own words, that:

“You are absolutely right that Tate Trustees do draw a line [in terms of ethical funding]. They are simply not drawing it where you would like it to be drawn at present.”

If Serota himself has said that there are lines to be drawn between acceptable and non-acceptable sponsors, then we don’t understand why Jon Snow should take it upon himself to be advocating a position that collapses the possibility of having a meaningful discussion – that all money is complicated and raises issues, saying, for example: “Sponsorship by any company is bound always to be controversial; you know, banks, who banks with who, who gets widgets from whom… you can trace somebody to something in the capitalist system.”

The fact that the chair of the Tate Members Council was arguing against our concerns in a manner that went beyond the position that is taken by the Tate as expressed to members by the director himself again leaves us with little confidence in the way that this issue will have been represented and discussed at the Tate Members Council meeting in February.

As a result of our loss in confidence in the way that these issues have been represented to Tate Trustees, and the positioning of the Tate Members Council chair at the AGM, we would like to reiterate our request to meet personally with representatives of Tate Members Council to discuss these issues in person.

Yours sincerely,

Signed by 15 Tate Members


Focus Areas