22 July, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic forced our favourite cultural institutions around the world to shut their doors in unprecedented fashion. Museums, galleries and even art fairs had to postpone or cancel shows, some even going digital to deliver exhibitions online. However, today we can rejoice because the Tate Galleries are finally re-opening, albeit with caution.
Ever since the Tate opened its doors in August 1897, it has become the “gallery of the public”. London wouldn’t be the same without the Tate Galleries. Although beloved by the public, the Tate has not always, however, received support when deciding what pieces to add to its collection. Many of its curatorial choices have sparked international controversy, and yet, the Gallery has always stood by its decisions. Have they benefitted from standing their ground? Let’s take a look at two of their most disputed purchases.
Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2020
In 1972, the Tate purchased American artist Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, which consists of 120 grey sand-lime firebricks arranged in a rectangle formation, for an ‘undefined sum’. It was later discovered that the sum was, in fact, a modest £2,297. Little did they know that this would end up being one of the most controversial art purchases of all time.
During its first two years on display, from 1974 to 1975, Equivalent VIII received little attention. However, in 1976, The Sunday Times published an article on recent additions to the Tate collection, featuring a picture of Andre’s minimalist work. This launched an ongoing debate around the Tate’s cultural authority. The Times' article was followed by a wave of newspaper articles, including one in the aesthetically conservative Burlington
Magazine, accusing the Tate of wasting hard-earned taxpayers’ money on experimental art.
While some defended the Gallery, recognising Andre as a key minimalist artist with an international presence, others ridiculed it for purchasing what they deemed to be ‘a pile of bricks’.
Regardless of whether you agree with the critics or not, Equivalent VIII has become perhaps one of the most recognisable works of contemporary art. It is one of the most highly visited works within the Tate collection, as visitors continuously flood in to see ‘what the fuss is all about’.
“...these bricks have really brought the public in. They can't make head or tail of them. Nothing has attracted as much attention as they have.”
- Arthur Payne, Gallery Assistant, quoted in the Evening Standard, n.f.d. 197
On top of that, due to the publicity it has acquired, the current price of this work has been valued at over £2 million according to the UK Registrars Group. That’s quite significant when you take into consideration what the Tate originally paid for it. If it were to sell it one day, the Tate would make a satisfactory profit. However, given the work’s iconic status, we doubt that they will be saying goodbye to it anytime soon.
Martin Creed, Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, 2000
Martin Creed, Work No 227: Lights going on and off, 2000-1
When British artist Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off was first displayed at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize, one artist became so offended that she threw eggs at the wall to show her disgust at the piece. Despite this and many other negative reactions, Creed ended up winning the prize and his work was bought by the Tate, in 2013, to be included in its permanent collection.
Work No. 227 consists of an empty room with lights switching on and off every five seconds. It’s as simple as that. So, you can see why it may have sparked some controversy. Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for the Tate at the time told The Independent that it ‘is widely considered to be one of his [Creed’s] signature works’. She argued that it was and would always be intrinsically linked to Tate Britain.
Although the Tate did not reveal how much they paid for Creed’s work – only stating that it was bought with funds provided by Tate Members, the Art Fund and a private donor – it had been valued at around £110,000 at the time of its purchase.
In response to the controversy, Creed stated that the best works ‘get under people’s skin, make them remember them’. This was unarguably achieved by the Tate after they purchased Work No. 227. Up until now, it has continued to draw in a steady inflow of curious visitors.
Perhaps, with regards to the two works above, the debate does not so much concern the works themselves, but rather, our definition of art within the contemporary space, and how our perpetual redefinition of art fits in with institutional agendas. For now, let’s leave this discussion open for another rainy day.
BBC News, ‘Tate buys Martin Creed’s Turner Prize work’, Sep. 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-23941925
Tate, Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/andre-equivalent-viii-t01534
Tate, Martin Creed, 'Work No. 227: The lights go on and off', 2000, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/creed-work-no-227-the-lights-going-on-and-off-t13868
The Burlington Magazine Index Blog, ‘The Burlington Magazine and the “Tate Bricks” Controversy’, May 2014, https://burlingtonindex.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/carl_andre/
The Guardian, ‘Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII: the most boring controversial artwork ever’, Jonathan Jones, Sep. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/sep/20/carl-andre-equivalent-viii-bricks
The Independent, ‘Tate acquires Martin Creed's controversial Turner Prize-winning piece Work No 227’, Nick Clark, Sep. 2013, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/tate-acquires-martin-creeds-controversial-turner-prize-winning-piece-work-no-227-8795204.html