Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cost-cutting and Petitions at London Art Galleries

Did you know a five-day strike is planned at the National Gallery?  There's also a petition suggesting that the public should say 'No to privatisation of the National Gallery' (see below).

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has called for a five day strike from Tuesday 3 to Saturday 7 February.  Members at the Gallery had voted for industrial action after management proposed to externalise the staff who are the public face of the gallery - namely c.400 staff who provide security, visitor services and visitor engagement.

Union members are also protesting planned cuts in gallery assistants at Dulwich Picture Gallery (see below)

This post is about why cuts in expenditure are being made, what action staff are taking - and what I think about the proposals. I'm interested to know what you think - do please leave a comment at the end.

Context for the Cuts

The continued stranglehold on public sector expenditure caused by the bankers' exploits pre-2008 and the need to exert control over the economy continues to create a very tight grip of public expenditure.

This in turn means that all public service organisations in the UK are looking for cuts to enable them to continue to provide a service within current funding constraints.
The Gallery continues to face significant and sustained cuts to grant-in-aid over the coming years National Gallery - Finance
The National Gallery's perspective is that it wants more
“more flexibility to meet the changing expectations of our visitors in an environment where our income is decreasing”.
Frankly, my perspective is that I find it very odd that:
  • on the one hand the Galleries have to go cap in hand to the banks for sponsorship monies which help them provide an effective service and ace exhibitions
  • at the same time as their grant-in-aid is being limited by a government still trying to control an economy lacerated by the very stupid actions of some of the banks prior to 2008!
It's not an easy situation for any manager, however as an ex-senior manager in public service I well understand the need to make changes which seek to preserve the outcomes (ie the service offered) as opposed to the means (ie the out-dated terms and conditions of existing staff).

National Gallery and the PCS union

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square

The National Gallery is an interesting case. So far as I am aware:
  • The PCS Union has had a long-running battle with the Gallery's management for years and years in relation to the terms and conditions of staff who are members of the PCS 
  • The PCS is totally inflexible to negotiation about making changes for modern practices. 
In fact I'd go so far as to say the National Gallery is probably one of the few places left in the UK where the union is running the show.
For example, my understanding is that which rooms at the National Gallery are open to the public on a day to day basis is totally within the remit of the unions. Shop stewards close rooms down at whim when they are taking industrial action and/or working to rule and/or are short-staffed.  I also understand (I've asked in the past!) is that very little notice is given about room closure from which I conclude that management are either hamstrung or ineffective on this matter.

CPS is a minor union in relation to public services - it only has 240,000 members and these typically relate to civil service activities and in central government services which have already been privatised. The major Union for people working in public services is Unison (1.3 million members) and UNITE (also 1.42 million members).

The current proposal which CPS is getting very agitated about is that various non-core services should be externalised - or as the unions would have it "privatised".  The services in question are the security and ticketing/visitor services ie generic services which are routinely provided to different organisations by a variety of specialist firms.

Frankly I welcome the notion of externalisation at the National Gallery. The provision of food and drink at the National Gallery improved enormously once this was externalised and Peyton & Byrne got the contract.  However I very definitely would NOT like to see the non-generic specialist staff and and core art services externalised.

In my personal experience, one of the notable downsides of the National Gallery is the behaviour and attitudes of some of the visitor-facing staff. (I'm not saying all staff - the retail shops can be very helpful - but I am talking about a general impression over very many years). For example, I've certainly experienced and seen some of the security staff be unfriendly and very unhelpful. I am at a loss as to how their 'experience' is demonstrated to visitors to the museum - particularly when they close rooms at short notice despite the fact visitors may have travelled long distances to view paintings in that room.

I'd be very happy to see a change if externalisation means that 
  • the practices relating to room closure are better managed and communicated - which is something which should be possible if a company is running it under contract
  • the start and finish opening hours became much more flexible and in tune with when people want to visit museums - e.g. more evenings and late night openings. London's night economy positively hums - everywhere except the art galleries!
I'd add that I think CPS have brought this on their own members. If they'd been prepared to negotiate about terms and conditions in an intelligent fashion and recognise that the public service has moved on and is now a totally different animal than the state of affairs 30-40 years ago then its members jobs would not now be subject to externalisation. Let's also be clear that externalisation does not necessarily mean that everybody loses their jobs. It just means that people have a different employer - and their terms and conditions change and people are expected to be more flexible as to working patterns.

I have just one caveat. Under no circumstances whatsoever should G4S, the firm which botched the security contract for the Olympics, be shortlisted for the security service. They have proven their management to be incompetent and they are way short of proving that they have effected a turnaround.

Dulwich Picture Gallery - and the gallery assisants

Interior of Dulwich Picture Gallery - which puts on some excellent exhibitions

Looks to me from the Tumblr blog and the Facebook Page set up by the Gallery Assistants that something similar is happening over at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

According to staff, the cost-cutting proposals are:
  • 19 members of the front-of-house team will face redundancy. This is over half of the current visitor services team (It's unclear whether this is number of staff or whole-time equivalents aka 'w.t.e.'s. It may well be that they have a number of part-time staff)
  • Those keeping their jobs will be asked to sign new annualised hours contracts meaning they have to work any hours stipulated by management without over-time rates. 
  • Staff expect the impact will be a lower annual income for visitor services staff (My expectation would be that this probably means the management proposals remove the premium for overtime rates by adjusting the number of staff in the gallery at any one time to fit the profile of the number of visitors to the museum - staffing up for busy times and releasing staff from the need to be at work when it is less busy. It's an obvious solution to keep the gallery open in a cosy-efficient manner for the benefit of the visitors)
It also appears as if UNITE (1.3 million members) is the Union which holds sway at Dulwich
The DPG Gallery Assistants, who are members of Unite, condemn the cuts saying:“We love working at the gallery, we love the paintings and we love our visitors. We work hard to bring you the superlative customer service that makes our gallery so unique. We believe the proposed redundancies are unjustified and unfair, and that they will ultimately jeopardise and damage the relationship we have developed with our customers throughout the years. We are united in our intention to fight the proposed cuts and ask for your support and solidarity” Unite | Stop the staff Cuts at Dulwich Picture Gallery
I have to say my experience of Dulwich is that most of the gallery assistants that I meet at press previews are extremely nice, knowledgeable and very helpful.  It sure makes a difference to my visitor experience!

I also understand that if the option is making cuts to staff or making cuts to how often and for how long the Gallery opens that this is a difficult decision.

Isn't it interesting how I have slightly different perspective on Dulwich compared to the National - purely based on the attitudes and helpfulness of the staff?

Isn't it also interesting which group of staff know how to communicate effectively with their customers?

The Petitions

There are two petitions:
I'm not signing either right now.  Note that you can only leave comments if you sign them - which is why I'm writing my comments in this post!

That's because I want to hear the case from management as to what the alternative options are. In the past I was a member of senior management teams having to agree and propose cuts packages. on an annual basis. I KNOW that such proposals are not put forward without a great deal of thought - and that the options are very often less likely to be liked by service users (and yes, service users are very frequently prioritised over staff).

I've provided the links so you can read what the unions and staff think. I've told you what I think.

If anybody wants to provide me with the management perspective on the current situation I'd be more than happy to give them some space on this blog

...and then I'll decide whether or not to vote on either or both of those petitions.

What do you think?

Let me know what you think:
  • What's your visitor experience of staff at either Gallery?
  • Would you like to see more flexible opening hours at either Gallery?
  • Would you rather the Gallery cut opening hours or revise staff terms and conditions?
  • Should Galleries receive public funding via grant-in-aid - or are their other public services which are more deserving of the funds which get allocated to the arts?
  • If galleries are to receive grant-in-aid, should it be a requirement that they adopt modern practices in relation to the cost-effective employment of staff?


Pappersdraken said...

My own experience of working at an art museum is that the management regard their visitor staff as just necessary but not worth noticing. That many of the staff had academic degrees in art history was totally ignored and our pay was very low, in level of the cleaners ( who of course also do an important job but has not had to take loans fo their education).

The only way to make ends meet was the pay for working late hours and weekends. I think that the suggestion at Dulwich for the staff to not get any extra pay for working at night or at weekends is just an insult! Would the management accept such conditions themselves?

As for the National Gallery I have always found the staff helpful. And it is something to be so proud of for the british, that it is possible to go to the big London museums for free- so even if you are very poor, you can still go and see your cultural heritage! Here in Sweden the new governement wanted the big museums to have free entry, but the opposition ( representing the richer part of the population) opposed it, so for a family to go to a museum is easily 30-40 pounds. And that means many from lower incomes never consider going to a museum. It is a matter of democracy. Sorry if this was off topic- I just wanted to stress the happiness I feel whenever I come to London and go to british museum ot the National Gallery, how generous the british are!

Making A Mark said...

The proposal as I understand it is not for staff to work extra hours for no pay but rather to work a different pattern of basic hours for their same basic pay.

It's a device being used by public services right across the UK in order to manage within the increasingly tight financial constraints. It's not nice - but it's necessary.

I just think we all need to keep a perspective on this and remember that decisions about funding are not made on artistic merit alone.

For example the budget for caring for older people has been cut by 20% at the same time as their numbers have increased by 20%.

You can be very sure that older people are not enjoying the same levels of service they used to have in the past!

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