The National Gallery in London (image by Kathryn Wright)

LONDON — A group of 27 art educators is taking legal action against the National Gallery in London, in what could prove to be a landmark case for public sector employment in the gig economy and policy regarding worker protection in art institutions.

The 27 claimants — artists and art historians who worked in the National Gallery’s Education Department — were dismissed in October 2017. They are alleging unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of length of service, age, and sex. They are also asking to be recognized as employees, or “workers,” rather than as self-employed contractors. Employees and workers enjoy benefits such as minimum wage, holiday pay, and protection from dismissal — benefits that are not afforded to independent contractors.

The National Gallery, one of the world’s leading museums of Western European art with works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Cézanne, rejects these claims. It states that the claimants were freelance workers providing a range of services on an ad hoc basis for the Gallery, as well as for other museums and galleries across London. It explains that the dismissals came about as a result of the restructuring of its Education Department, involving a change from ad hoc work to more secure employment.

The National Gallery on a quiet night (image by Tom Godber)

The case raises important issues about working arrangements in the arts. “Individuals working in the arts are in need of certainty surrounding their employment rights, and it’s essential to ensure they are categorized correctly,” the claimants’ legal representative, Marie van der Zyl, told Hyperallergic.

“My colleagues have been at the National Gallery for between 10 and 45 years, literally centuries of teaching experience,” Richard Stemp, one of the 27 claimants, said in an email to Hyperallergic. The longest-serving claimant, James Heard, who worked at the Gallery for 45 years, adds: “We are standing up for fair treatment for staff in the arts, and to protect the teaching expertise at the heart of our museums. Our national galleries are something the UK is extremely proud of, and it is vital that the educators who hold the collective knowledge of these places are properly protected.”

The case’s outcome may depend on how the National Gallery treated the claimants in terms of the usual characteristics of employment. “We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source, and wore staff passes,” the group said in a statement. Taxing at source — deduction of income tax by an institution before salary is paid to the individual — is a common attribute of employment arrangements.

“We were required to attend staff training and team meetings and received formal reviews of our work. But we had no job security or employment rights, including holiday pay and sick pay,” the group states. “The Gallery has replaced our large group of long-serving educators with a small number of in-house educator roles on greatly reduced salary and terms, to which we do not consent.”

The National Gallery, in a statement sent to Hyperallergic, says that “the change reflects the Gallery’s strategy to develop its programmes to increasingly reach new audiences and make the most of digital technology to widen its engagement.” It continues: “The entire group were consulted for their views together and individually over the change for a period of three months between October 2017 and January 2018. These jobs were offered to all of our existing freelance service providers last year. We still have vacancies which are available, although unfortunately not all of the group have expressed an interest in these.”

The institution adds: “The Gallery is not yet in receipt of the details of each complaint, but believes that we have acted both lawfully and fairly in changing our service provision to one of secure employment.”

After a preliminary hearing that took place earlier this month, the full case will be heard by an employment tribunal over eight days in November. The claimants have launched a crowdfunding appeal to cover the legal costs of the hearing. Of their £65,000 (~$85,000) target, they have so far raised £20,000 (~$26,000). The group has also set up Instagram and Facebook pages with the handle “Stand with NG 27.”

The National Gallery, which is one of the most popular museums in the UK and hosts around two million annual visitors, is predominantly funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In 2016­­–17, the institution received £24.1 million (~$31.6 million) in grant-in-aid funding, supplemented by £7.9 million (~$10.4 million) in legacies and donations and £8.9 million (~$11.7 million) in other income.

This legal action against the National Gallery is the latest in a succession of recent cases relating to the gig economy. In the last year, couriers for the UK delivery company Hermes and drivers for ridesharing service Uber have won their legal battles to be treated as workers instead of independent contractors. While these cases relate to the private sector, the case against the National Gallery is the first relating to the gig economy within a public institution. It could prove to be a landmark case for employment law in the public sector. This issue is particularly significant in the art world, where low-wage or unpaid work has raised concerns about the exploitation of workers.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...