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Former National Gallery Educators Commence 10-Day Tribunal for Unfair Dismissal in Gig Economy

After 27 educators were dismissed from the National Gallery in London, they launched a crowd-funded legal effort to combat the precarity of such unstable employment, backed by vocal support from the UK’s Labour Party.

NG27 at the “Precarious Workers’ March” on October 30 (all images courtesy NG27)

LONDON — A ten-day hearing began today for a group of educators, who are bringing an employment case against the National Gallery in London for unfair dismissal and discrimination. The case will be heard for ten days at the Central London Employment Tribunal, with a ruling expected on December 7.

The 27 educators, who were dismissed in October 2017, are asking to be recognized as employees or “workers,” rather than self-employed contractors. The tribunal could prove to be a landmark case for employment law in the public sector. According to the educators’ legal team, the hearing will also decide a point of law not considered by previous “gig economy” cases, namely whether workers are entitled to collective consultation before the termination of a contract.

The National Gallery claims that the educators were dismissed as part of a restructuring of the Education Department. “It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the Gallery’s wish to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits,” the Gallery said in a July statement emailed to Hyperallergic. The gallery refutes the claim that the educators were dismissed without consultation, saying: “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.”

NG27 member Jacqui Ansell’s rendition of Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1635), which is in the National Gallery’s collection

One of the claimants, Richard Stemp, who worked at the National Gallery for 24 years, tells Hyperallergic: “We performed a vital role at the gallery, bringing the paintings to life through schools’ workshops, public tours, and courses, and have over all this time been the public face of the National Gallery.” The artists and art lecturers, who now go by the moniker of “NG27,” led a variety of educational activities for school children and members of the public. They say that the tribunal will have a broader impact on those working in public institutions. Stemp explains: “We want our status as employees to be recognized, not just for us, but so that others working in the public sector can be treated appropriately.”

Last week, Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour Members of Parliament (MP) Stella Creasy, Neil Coyle, and Helen Hayes met with the claimants and expressed their support for the campaign. In a video statement, Jeremy Corbyn said, “I’m here to support the campaign because I’m very concerned about the number of people in this country who are frankly, bogusly self-employed. In reality, they are employees of big companies and organizations all over the country.” In another statement, MP Stella Creasy said, “The ramifications of this case go far beyond what happens to the 27 people taking a class action. It is about whether our public services are acting in an ethical fashion, not just how they pay people but how they treat people when they want to make changes, and what that means today when more and more are being classed as self-employed.”

Paul Delaroche’s “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” (1833) (left) and Jacqui Ansell’s NG27 rendition (right)

The educators have been crowd-funding their legal representation, finding increasingly creative ways in which to raise money. In September, the group raised £3,000 ($3,844) from an eBay auction of postcards inspired by the works of artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Constable. More recently, one of the educators, Jacqui Ansell, has been making a calendar with recreations of canonical paintings. Among her elaborately-staged tableaux vivants are recreations of Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (c.1598-1599), Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1635), and Paul Delaroche’s “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” (1833) — the last two of which are in the National Gallery’s Collection.

Other works that she and her group of friends have recreated are Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (c.1665), the two cherubs from Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” (1512), and Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1413). In their recreation of the “Arnolfini Portrait,” they have substituted van Eyck’s famous self-portrait in the reflection of the convex mirror with a mirror image of the photographers holding their iPhones. The group will be gradually releasing these recreations on their social media pages, and the calendar will go on sale in December.

Ansell’s friend and collaborator on the calendar, Anne-Marie Nixey, told Hyperallergic, “Jacqui is a real expert in her field, and seeing her go through this process has been eye-opening.” Ansell specializes in the history of costume, and has taught courses on art history at Christie’s and the Open University, as well as at the National Gallery. Explaining the impetus of the calendar’s creation, Nixey explained: “We’re quite a creative bunch and love just trying stuff out. These were all done in my house with some material and a few homemade props.”

The group has so far raised £71,633 (~$91,786) of its £90,000 (~$115,377) target. The National Gallery, which receives approximately £24 million (~$31.6 million) a year from the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport, will be using public funds to foot its legal bills.

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