Russell Marks, "Curse of the Pigeon," oil on canvas, part of an exhibition last fall of work by National Gallery staff in protest of privatization (image via Facebook)

Russell Marks, “Curse of the Pigeon,” oil on canvas, part of an exhibition last fall of work by National Gallery staff in protest of privatization (image via Facebook)

On Monday, the National Gallery of London transferred security services for its Sainsbury Wing over to the private security company CIS. The move is the latest in a bitter dispute over the privatization of a huge number of jobs at the museum: 400 of 600 positions, or two-thirds of the institution’s entire staff.

The National Gallery has been on a path to privatization for some time. News of the plan first came last summer, and in the fall the museum outsourced the guarding of its Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition to CIS. That was met with a 24-hour strike by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union, “the UK’s largest civil service trade union.” Since then PCS has organized several protests and days of action to fight the privatization and is now voting internally to authorize a series of consecutive strikes in February.

But on Monday the museum went ahead and placed its entire Sainsbury Wing — comprising nearly 500,000 square feet and a collection of early Renaissance paintings — under CIS control, “for the rest of this year without any competitive tender or consultation,” according to PCS. Startlingly, a National Gallery trustee admitted to Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, “that CIS had been brought in to run the Sainsbury wing to give the gallery staff a fright.”

Flyer by Arts Attack for last night's protest at the National Gallery (image via Facebook) (click to enlarge)

Flyer by Arts Attack for last night’s protest at the National Gallery (image via Facebook) (click to enlarge)

As is often the case, the institution and the union are at odds over work conditions and pay. PCS claims that the Gallery is the only national museum in the British capital that fails to pay the London living wage. The Gallery claims that it intends to start paying the living wage, but says reduced public funding means other concessions must be made. The institution provided Hyperallergic with a lengthy prewritten statement about the dispute, which explains:

In common with many other publicly funded institutions, the National Gallery’s funding from Government is falling. We therefore have to increase funding from other areas, such as events, retail and commercial activities. Many people and groups which support the Gallery would like to make use of its facilities outside of normal opening hours. These help us raise the extra money we need to continue to provide the wide range of services on offer to the public and schools that might otherwise be affected by the reduction in our grant. In order to do this, we need to be able to guarantee the provision of essential security and services.

The museum also provided a copy of a letter sent to all staff on January 9 by outgoing director Nicholas Penny. In it he says the institution made an offer to raise the basic salary to “the region of £19,500 (plus overtime) [~$29,000], far in excess of the London Living Wage minimum, in return for greater flexibility” regarding early morning, Friday evening, and weekend hours— an offer he claims was rejected by PCS. Penny writes (emphasis his):

Put simply, if the Gallery is to continue to thrive as a public entity with reduced public money, change is essential. There is no option that allows everything to stay the same.

The Gallery states that because negotiations have halted, it “will now continue to seek a partner to manage the provision of some of our visitor-facing and security services, protecting the existing terms and conditions in their present state.” It also claims that this will allow the institution “to fulfil our pledge to pay all our staff the London Living Wage as a minimum, starting from 1 April 2015.”

PCS, on the other hand, says that negotiations stalled because of the museum, not the union. “We thought we were making progress but at the end of last year, gallery management walked away from the talks saying they had reached a conclusion and that they had no option but to press ahead,” PCS Spokesman Richard Simcox told Hyperallergic. “We reject that and have said all along that staff are prepared to be flexible to meet the future needs of the gallery, but obviously that must be negotiated and not imposed.”

The union fears that privatization will bring unwelcome changes to working conditions — in the Guardian, Toynbee offers the example of CIS removing guard chairs during its staffing stint at the Rembrandt show. She also laments the possibility of losing “well-informed, if untrained, guides who like to be asked questions, know where paintings are, are glad to advise nervous visitors unsure what to look at” to CIS, which “mostly provides heavies to guard empty buildings, not talk to the public.”

In his email to Hyperallergic, Simcox pointed out the suddenness of the museum’s decision to undertake privatization. He attached a November 2013 Visitor Services and Security memo to the board of trustees that specifically addresses the question of “contracting out,” stating:

There is a strong sense from the Executive that the quality of our VSS team is best served by establishing a well trained and committed workforce in house, with a good understanding of the Gallery’s specific circumstances. Maintaining this level of knowledge and commitment is a concern raised by those who have sought to outsource equivalent services, and the TUPE regulations suggest that in any event current terms and conditions would remain. The benefits are therefore unlikely to be significant in the short term, and this option has not been evaluated in detail at this stage.

Simcox also pointed out that Penny announced his retirement last June, only weeks before the news of the decision to move ahead with privatization. “The timing is coincidental,” Simcox said. “We simply don’t know because no one will answer why this decision has been made, so we can only ask the question of whether there is a connection.”

The National Gallery is “a non-departmental public body” of the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, according to its website. Its art collection “belongs to the people of the United Kingdom.” But its increasing reliance on private funding and resources reflects the increasingly blurry line between public and private institutions, as well as the privatization trend affecting everything from libraries to prisons.

Penny’s staff letter seems to suggest that the outsourcing is a very nearly done deal: “At this point the commitment has been made to source an external partner to manage some of our services,” he writes. “Once that commercial process has been begun we are obliged to see it through with a genuine intent to do business.”

Still, a protest took place Monday evening in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and an online petition addressed to National Gallery trustees and the government has thus far garnered 37,819 signatures. PCS members continue voting on potential future strikes until Friday, and a yes “is likely to lead to the union announcing several days of consecutive strike action in February,” the organization says.

UPDATE, 1/28, 11:44am ET: PCS members have voted more than nine to one in favor of a strike, the BBC reports. The union will stage a walkout at the National Gallery from February 3 to 7. The institution says it is “disappointed” by the vote and will remain open throughout the strike; however, all educational programs during that time will be canceled.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...