If you were advised to “think carefully” before taking a particular action, how would you react? It depends, of course, on who is giving the advice and the tone of their voice. Coming from a caring teacher with an encouraging smile, that could be all positive. From a tall man wielding a baseball bat, this could be interpreted a little differently.
On Thursday, this newspaper reported that on March 31, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), Sean Rainbird, sent an email to employees, largely dealing with internal interview matters, promotion special exhibitions, the arrival of new employees, the post-pandemic return. work on site, etc.
Rainbird also referred to a controversy that erupted a few months ago over the gallery’s decision to award the management contract for its café to Aramark, a multinational company which, in addition to operating the chain of cafés Avoca, provides catering services to businesses across the country.
The controversy arose because Aramark is also contracted by the state to provide services to a number of direct supply centers. The inhumane and unethical system of direct care for asylum seekers has long been the subject of political agitation and protest, including by Irish artists.
(Aramark, it should be noted, states that it operates its services at direct delivery centers “to the highest possible standards.”)
If the central problem is that of the unacceptable actions of agents of the State, the logical consequence would surely be to refuse to deal with the State
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the contract sparked a public online petition, the removal by several artists of their work from exhibitions at the gallery, and a letter of protest from staff members who warned of “reputational damage” by the gallery. decision and argued that it was “in direct conflict” with the work the NGI had previously undertaken to build relationships with asylum seekers and those receiving direct assistance.
In his letter, Rainbird expressed the slightly provocative view that the invasion of Ukraine had brought the whole controversy to an “abrupt” end, adding: “It may also have provided perspective on real upheaval, especially when thousands of refugees arrive here will have to be housed somewhere, which is of concern to the OPW [/Office of Public Works/] very close.”
He also complained that “the way it happened made it difficult for the Museum to speak with one voice, which we strive to achieve, and for good reason. Communications and social media policies are a good starting point for anyone looking for clarity.”
All of this led him to conclude that: “if you think you have a valid cause, think carefully about the possible consequences before taking action, and think carefully before raising an issue.”
What to do with all this? The exasperated tone of Rainbird’s mail is barely veiled. The warning to staff to keep abreast of communications guidelines is roughly comparable to the course of chief executives of organizations when this type of internal ruction erupts into public view (whether these guidelines work or not is a whole other matter ).
The ‘think hard’ line rings with that general tone, although the unnamed staff member who told The Irish Times he was ‘shocked’ by it appears to have led a sheltered life.
It would be a real shame if this incident failed – or worse, was not allowed – to spark genuine discussion and cultural engagement on the issues it raised. For its part, the gallery stresses that as a state-funded national cultural institution it is bound by Irish and EU public procurement regulations and would be in breach if, as protesters demanded, it canceled its contract with Aramark.
So what do the protesting staff members suggest the gallery do? The same question could be asked of protesting artists, who can at least answer that it is not up to them to solve a problem that is not their fault.
But if the central problem is the unacceptable actions of state agents, the logical consequence would surely be to refuse to deal with the state. If Aramark’s cappuccinos are tainted, so are the gallery’s historic wings, remarkably renovated recently by the same OPW that’s responsible for the nation’s direct sourcing centers.
It may be a reductio ad absurdum, but it is an example of the complexities that surround the intertwined relationships between nationally funded cultural institutions, practicing artists and political activism. If artists or arts workers want to move beyond purely performative or symbolic actions (which have their own value), then some form of engagement is needed.
It’s part of the job of people like Rainbird to facilitate this engagement, which, if truly meaningful, should make everyone “think hard.”