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The Tate Affair: then and now

5 August 2014

The negative attention Tate Britain has received in recent years from, amongst others, Brian Sewell and The Burlington Magazine, came to a head in April when Waldemar Januszczak called for its director, Penelope Curtis, to go. This year is the 60th anniversary of ‘The Tate Affair’, a comparable series of attacks that saw the then director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, pilloried almost to the point of losing his job.

Between 1952 and 1954 the affair saw Tate trustees and employees, art critics, artists, journalists and even politicians questioning Rothenstein’s governance of the Tate. Incidents ranged from claims of negligence when Zsa Zsa Gabor was photographed with her foot on a sculpture, to accusations of profiting financially from the Tate’s purchase, with the help of The Art Fund, of a bronze cast of Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at what was thought to be an excessive price. Both these events of 1952 led to questions in parliament, and the latter a Treasury investigation. The following year the two architects of the Tate Affair, art collector and critic Douglas Cooper and the Tate’s Deputy Keeper LeRoux Smith LeRoux, brought to light evidence of the Tate using trust funds to acquire artworks which contravened the rules associated with the various funds, errors of which Rothenstein claimed to be innocent.

LeRoux was a South African curator Rothenstein had brought to the gallery in 1950. According to Rothenstein’s autobiography, the ambitious LeRoux spent the entirety of his employment at the Tate seeking out material he could feed to the Trustees and journalists to aid him in ousting and replacing the director. While he never succeeded in this ultimate goal, he managed to cause outcry in the art world and beyond, through his friendship with, and manipulation of, the chairman of the Tate Trustees Lord Jowitt and owner of the London Evening Standard and Daily Express newspapers Lord Beaverbrook. In 1954, following a Treasury investigation, the Tate Trustees decided that LeRoux should not be kept on, so he very publicly resigned. The artist and Tate Trustee Graham Sutherland, who also had a prominent role in the affair, supported him.

Sutherland’s involvement was somewhat subtler than LeRoux’s, but also ended in a resignation exclusive in the press. When questions over trust funds were reported on, the Tate responded with a full list of errors to disarm their critics. Upon publication of this list, Sutherland stepped down, further damning many aspects of Rothenstein’s administration in the Evening Standard. In The Sunday Express, Sutherland’s friend Douglas Cooper called for a judicial enquiry in response to Sutherland’s claims of maladministration and questions were asked in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Cooper’s aversion to Rothenstein was based on the latter’s preference for British art, which Cooper felt had led to a shameful lack of modern European art in Tate’s collection. Cooper wrote to Rothenstein in 1953 declaring ‘There are still more than 10 years in which to hound you out of Millbank– and it shall be done.’ The following year, at the opening of Richard Buckle’s Diaghilev exhibition, Cooper’s jibes enraged Rothenstein to the point that he punched the collector in the face. Accounts of the punch’s effect, of whether Cooper was floored or merely had his glasses knocked off, vary wildly, but Rothenstein won the nickname ‘The Tiger of the Tate’. A truce between Rothenstein and Cooper was eventually forged, and the rumours around the Tate finally died out.

In retrospect the Tate Affair appears as an amusing scandalous tale from yesteryear, closer to the controversial changes in leadership at the Musée Picasso in Paris than the current situation at Millbank. However, the underlying tension about the nature and importance of the British art collected and displayed by Tate is still highly relevant. A perceived bias towards modern and contemporary art over historic art in Tate Britain’s permanent collection displays has been at the heart of much recent criticism.

The Tate Affair also highlights a shift in expectations of art museums and their directors. While in the 1950s criticism focused on acquisitions and prices, today the emphasis is on curating coherent and accessible exhibitions and displays, a quality judged as much by visitor figures as by art world opinion. In recent praise of two national museum directors, Nicholas Penny of The National Gallery and Sandy Nairne of the National Portrait Gallery, on the occasion of their retirements, more attention has been paid to audiences attracted than works acquired. This shift may appear subtle, there is a clear continuing concern for the best use of public funds, but it is perhaps indicative of an art world weary of debates over artistic quality and value, and more concerned with the communicability of art and ideas.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)