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‘Restoring the National Gallery’s political reputation will be a hard task’

10 August 2015

There is a view that when he takes up his post as director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson might have the most difficult job in London galleries.

Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery's new director, will have to deal with the ongoing staff dispute.

Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery’s new director, will have to deal with the ongoing staff dispute. Photo: Sergio Enriquez-Nistal

But all Farquharson really has to worry about is the gallery’s artistic reputation. Over at the National Gallery poor Gabriele Finaldi will have much bigger things to address when he takes up the directorship on 17 August. The National Gallery has recently damaged its political reputation, and the task of restoring it will be far harder than the relatively simple one of devising an artistic programme that appeals to both grumpy newspaper art critics and to mass audiences.

The National Gallery wants to increase the use of private security and visitor services staff, in order to reduce costs and arguing that this will allow the institution greater flexibility as it pushes ahead with its modernisation programme. This will be unpleasant for some existing staff, but several other museums have managed to make similar changes without too much fuss. At the National Gallery, though, front-of-house workers have now held over 50 separate days of strike action, and the gallery management has made a hash of its staff relationships. Its dismissal of union rep Candy Udwin not only gave the strikers a martyr, but may have broken employment law: in June an employment tribunal judge ruled the gallery should pay Udwin her full salary until a full hearing is held in October.

This behaviour, and the gallery’s position at the heart of the English establishment, has led some on the political left to regard the dispute as symbolic of a class struggle. For them, the battle neatly encapsulates the centuries-long struggle between labour and capital, in the form of the astonishingly valuable art collection and all those wealthy donors, patrons and trustees.

For some time, the National Gallery has been under attack from such chattering-class luminaries as Polly Toynbee and has been criticised by former trustees such as Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader who tweeted: ‘As a former Trustee, I’m shocked that our key duty: safeguarding the art is to be done by private contractors.’

In June, the National Gallery organised a Twitter conversation with outgoing director Nick Penny, who promptly refused to respond to any tricky questions. It’s lucky the reluctant PR team doesn’t have to deal with anti-BP sponsorship campaigns. (Incidentally, Shell is the National Gallery’s oil company of choice, so I’m sure their time will come.)

The gallery pressed on with its cost-cutting staff privatisation programme, and at the end of July announced that the £40million five-year contract to run its visitor and security services was being awarded to Securitas. The gallery has stated that existing staff affected by the deal will be able to transfer to Securitas without any change to their terms of employment.

In my view, the Public and Commercial Services Union has played the game well, mounting a dignified, sometimes witty campaign. It’s made full use of the gallery’s visibility at the heart of London, on the conveniently pedestrianised Trafalgar Square, an established place of political protest.

The stakes have just got higher still. Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary has announced an all-out strike from 11 August, just days before Finaldi starts. What a ghastly welcome that will be to what should be one of the world’s best gallery jobs. The new director’s honeymoon period could be short. He probably has a maximum three months to reach some kind of compromise before he too becomes tarnished as a union-basher.

In a small complication, the week before Finaldi starts as director, the gallery gets a new chair of trustees: Hannah Rothschild, the first woman ever to hold the post.

If he proves an apt diplomat, Finaldi will be able to begin the long process of restoring the National Gallery’s tarnished political reputation.

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One comment

  1. Malcolm Rayer Aug 10 2015 at 5:04 pm

    Why am I not surprised that Maurice Davies has swallowed the Socialist Worker point of view about this strike hook, line and sinker?
    Most rationale observers see the strike action as political, focussed on a “soft target” to make head-line grabbing news for anti-austerity activists. It is not the National Gallery which has a political reputation to restore but rather those who use it as a convenient political football!

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