Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Privatisation at the National Gallery: a reflection, and a modest proposal

The National Gallery has outsourced its security; the guards' strike was an abject failure, as AHN explains. The Union had a weak hand, and played it badly. The National Gallery always held all the cards, but they mismanaged the situation spectacularly. They unfairly dismissed an employee, but not just any employee. They sacked a union rep during one of the most contentious negotiations, which was a fantastically stupid move that caused the situation to escalate. 

The NG brought the strike on itself. Outsourcing is still a bad idea, but its implementation was handled incompetently. There is a serious lack of basic managerial competence and basic savvy. It is not simply that a senior individual made the decision to sack the union rep, but also that the management structure allowed the decision to be taken—it's a collective failure. And then it was compounded by upholding the decision on appeal. Morons. And where was the expertise from the Trustees, who are meant to provide outside guidance? The board seems stuffed with dilettantes who relish the social cachet but don't bring much to the table. I'm always appalled when the board minutes record their delight with the progress of restoration, which few of them are even qualified to judge. 

I'm not ideologically opposed to privatisation. My objections to outsourcing one of the key functions of the gallery are practical. But I do understand the need to save money and operate more efficiently, so in the interests of constructive engagement let me suggest a better candidate for outsourcing: conservation. The NG's conservation department has, in its history, done incalculable damage. Most of the collection has been drastically over-cleaned, given the collection a different appearance from museums in Europe that have been more cautious. 

The conservation department is expensive, powerful and dangerous. It holds great institutional power at the NG (the Head of Conservation was interim director before Nicholas Penny). It should be subservient to the curators. And it is dangerous, because its institutional authority means that it is immodest and subject to groupthink, promoting its bad ideas elsewhere—like the appalling overcleaning of the Leonardo's Virgin & Child with St Anne in the Louvre, promoted by NG conservator Larry Keith.

An internal conservation department has a natural incentive to create work for itself; who is going to say that nothing currently needs to be done, so they should take a holiday? On the other hand, it may on occasion have too much work to do, such as preparing pictures for a big exhibition, which incentivises haste. Given the lumpiness of the work schedule, it is a natural candidate for outsourcing. The day-to-day work of inspecting pictures annually ought more properly to fall to the curatorial department, which ought to have the skills to inspect pictures physically for damage and identify conservation work required. Outside consultants can be brought in to assist as required. 

The internal cost of cleaning a small picture is £34,500, which is far above commercial rates. And the NG is less competent than many independent conservators. They are now having to crowdsource to raise the funds to keep the conservation department going. Enough! Close it down. Save the money, and hire contractors. If they don't have the money, restoration will have to wait - which is not necessarily a bad thing, given the disastrous consequences of their historic haste. 


  1. A very sensible proposition, but how to implement and get support for it will be the problem.

  2. Could not underscore your criticism of the "conservation dept."enough times. Conservation Department which does in most cases anything but conserve. All the graduates of contemporary conservation dept. around Europe and certainly in US internalize aesthetic expectations promoting primary colors and "light"- therefore paintings of the past should receive a very serious scrubbing. The closer they get to look like something from IKA furniture store the better. Close them down and put restraining order on all of them.

  3. Great article & yes you are right to challenge them. You should question the private conservation and framing businesses run on the side by staff at The Fitzwilliam Museum and Hamilton Kerr Institute., it has been going on at The Fitzwilliam since 1976 and I am sure many other museums. Museums in receipt of public money should be just as accountable as banks. Museums don't pay any v.a.t on materials purchased for conservation but staff running businesses on the side on museum premises should be paying v.a.t. I whistleblowed about this at the Fitzwilliam and was bullied and victimised even by UNITE who protected those doing this. They tried to offer me £50,000 to be silenced but I refused the money. My manager Director of Collections was forced out in early retirement because of his poor management since 1976.. I legitimately raised concerns about the abuse of V.A.T. Public money used to fund education and the arts should not be used to silence museum staff who raise legitimate concerns under their fiduciary responsibilities to their employer. Instead they bully noosing a wooden figure & hung it from a pipe only for my husband to come in, photograph it with the Sunday Times and then cut it down. Other staff took the money I didn't. I may be poorer but morally was right.