The National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) has recently awarded its catering contract to the American corporation, Aramark, which provides food, facilities and uniform services to various industries. This company earned $16 billion in revenue alone during 2019, several million euros of which come from catering numerous state-owned Direct Provision centres for asylum seekers in Ireland every year. The Irish Direct Provision system has been highly criticised and the Government outlined their plan in the White Paper publication of 2021 to end Direct Provision as we know it by 2024. Even the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have spoken out on this system, noting that it violates a number of rights of asylum seekers, while Amnesty International deems it “an ongoing human rights scandal.” On the 2nd of February 2022, NGI staff voiced their “deep distress and strong opposition” over the catering contract and asked the gallery’s board members to reconsider their choice via a letter signed by 34 of 170 gallery staff members.
In protest to this announcement, several artists competing in the gallery’s Zurich Portrait Prize competition have pulled their work from the walls. Artist Brian Teeling first removed his shortlisted work “Declan Flynn in Dublin” which the gallery quickly covered up with another piece from the same group exhibition. Teeling, along with artists Emma Roche, Jonathan Mayhew, and Salvatore of Lucan (2021 winner), decided to write a letter to the the Board of Governors and Guardians of the NGI in support of the gallery staff who had called out management for awarding “the American prison-industrial corporation Aramark a three-year catering contract worth up to €7,500,000.” In the gallery’s Strategic Plan 2019 – 2023, the NGI highlights their aims to “increase accessibility,” as well as “embrace diversity and audiences representative of contemporary Irish society, and promote equality.” However, in their letter, the artists touch on the fact that as a national cultural institution, the NGI fail to fulfil these goals by signing a contract with a company which profits off of the inhumane system that is Direct Provision.
“In a recent opinion piece for RTÉ written by visual artist and judge for the Zurich Young Portrait Prize, Aideen Barry, Barry speaks about the failure of the NGI to recognise the artists’ protest, or even apologise for the swift replacement of Teeling’s work.”
Following what was felt to be an unsatisfactory response from the NGI, artists Emma Roche and Emily O’Flynn decided to remove their work from the exhibition with Teeling. Since then, five other groups and artists have further cancelled or postponed upcoming events with the gallery. In a recent opinion piece for RTÉ written by visual artist and judge for the Zurich Young Portrait Prize, Aideen Barry, Barry speaks about the failure of the NGI to recognise the artists’ protest, or even apologise for the swift replacement of Teeling’s work. By ignoring the great Irish history of protest through art, Barry believes it is a missed opportunity for the NGI to recognise this action taken by the artists for its “cultural and ethical significance.” Instead, the gallery has only said in a statement to The Journal that it “respects the wishes of individual artists, but regrets the changes to display.”
The NGI had been making great steps to improve accessibility and diversity in the gallery in recent years. From December 2020 to June 2021, the gallery held an exhibition called “Something From There” which was created with people living or formerly living in Direct Provision. The idea behind the exhibition was to explore the idea of home as asylum seekers showcased objects they brought to Ireland from their homes, and “the value and meaning that they have now come to hold” since their experiences of coming to Ireland. The NGI hoped that by sharing these objects and the stories behind them, visitors would “gain insights into the personal stories of the participants in a contemplative space within the Gallery.”
“By signing the contract with Aramark, it feels as though the NGI management has forgotten about this great exhibition and the collaboration the gallery staff had been working on with asylum seekers to increase accessibility and diversity.”
However, by signing the contract with Aramark, it feels as though the NGI management has forgotten about this great exhibition and the collaboration the gallery staff had been working on with asylum seekers to increase accessibility and diversity. Instead, in a statement from the Gallery on the recently awarded café contract, they attempted to avert the blame by noting that “as a public sector organisation, the Gallery is bound by Irish and EU procurement law as to how external suppliers tender for, and are awarded, contracts.” They state that Aramark was awarded the contract “following the tender process, as it scored highest on the prescribed assessment criteria.” They even acknowledge the initiatives that had been done in recent years which they believe “positively reinforces the Gallery’s inclusive approach.” What they fail to acknowledge is that by signing this contract, they have undone the staff’s hard work as it seems like it was just “virtue-signalling”, since they are happy enough to work with a company that profits off the broken system which they had been trying to highlight through the stories of asylum seekers.
“This could have been an opportunity for the NGI to take responsibility for their actions, learn something from it, and even teach others that this is not how a national cultural institution should be operating.”
Rather than apologise for signing with Aramark or acknowledge the protest from staff and artists, they have instead shifted the blame to the tender process which is a huge disappointment. This could have been an opportunity for the NGI to take responsibility for their actions, learn something from it, and even teach others that this is not how a national cultural institution should be operating. It gives the impression of being less welcoming, less equal, and less diverse to the nearly 7,000 people, including 1,993 children, who are currently in the Direct Provision system today. On Friday 25 February, more than 100 people gathered outside the NGI to protest its decision, organised by the End Direct Provision action group. However, as Barry notes, there is also unfortunately a “long history of protest being silenced by those in power who benefit from the status quo.” Until the gallery acknowledges and changes the mistake they have made in not only signing with Aramark, but also in ignoring the protest of their staff, artists and people working directly with asylum seekers, it can no longer claim to be a public institution welcome to all.