Monday, 23 February 2015

Strikes at the National Gallery

Picture: BBC
The National Gallery's guards are striking against plans to outsource their jobs. People are understandably annoyed at disrupted visits, and my first instinct is to back the NG on this one. The guards' case has not been well made. The boorish fool trolling Bendor Grosvenor's blog does their side no favours, and Polly Toynbee's support almost guarantees that I'll take the other side (an unworthy prejudice, but I find it an effective heuristic). Hackneyed arguments against evil outsourcing are often a plea for special treatment rather than a principled case for a public service ethos. Sometimes outsourcing is just a cheaper and more efficient way of delivering a service, and I'm all for that. 
But this time I'm with the union. Their fight for the best terms for their members coincides with the public interest, and they're doing a better job of safeguarding the gallery than the trustees and managers. The NG is pursuing outsourcing for the wrong reasons and it won't work. 
First some background. Outsourcing requires an explicit contract defining the services to be delivered and how delivery will be monitored and assessed. Contractors need to bid on a level playing field, so they need precise definition. Contracts are then won primarily on price - the cheapest tender generally wins. So the contractors are acting predictably and rationally when they seek to provide the barest minimum service consistent with the service level agreement. That's not a problem when services can be defined precisely. If the job is patrolling a goods yard, outsourcing might make sense. You want people on the ground as a deterrent, with an easily defined and easily assessed role. The contractor needs to hire a rota of staff, give them a defined patrol route, then monitor with GPS and CCTV. Contractors' cost cutting benefits consumers and taxpayers, but only if they continue to provide an appropriate level of service - which has to be definable in a service level agreement.
The National Gallery's guards don't just patrol the galleries. Theirs is a more complex and more important job, which in my experience they do very well. They have to balance an enforcement function with a public service function. They must be courteous, professional and helpful, and also sometimes assertive in protecting pictures from visitors who may be quite inadvertently putting them at risk. How do you write that down in a contract? Guards are always in the public eye, and I've seen laziness and incompetence from time to time. But I'm mostly struck by their professionalism and efficiency and helpfulness, enlivened by occasional quirkiness, humour and passion. Assessing guards' performance involves a degree of subjective judgment, as does hiring the right people in the first place. That kind of assessment can't be contracted out.
I suspect outsourced guards will be less knowledgeable, less helpful and more boring, which is a great shame. But the thing that worries me most is that they will resolve the balancing act between protecting pictures and keeping visitors happy by ignoring protection entirely and ducking any potential conflict. They will have no incentive to intervene if people poke at the pictures (happens more often than you'd think), because there's unlikely to be immediately visible damage, and if there is it's unlikely to be traced back to a guard failing in their duty. But every time somebody complains that a guard has told them to step back, it will reflect badly on the contractor. The guards' incentive will be to sit back and smile and the visitors. 
As former trustee Jon Snow tweeted, protecting the art is the gallery's key duty. It's not a cost-effective way of securing a service. It's a devious way of evading responsibility. If something goes wrong, they can blame the contractor. The NG's own story is that they need a more flexible workforce to cope with private evening events. I wonder if part of the issue is that they need more supine guards for private hire. The great irony is that they're criticising the union for causing closures, but museums that host private evening events are notorious for closing early and arbitrarily to set up for paid functions; it happens all the time at the V&A, especially. Paying guests take priority. And for all the pious criticism of the effect of strikes on visitors, I've more often been inconvenienced by rooms that are closed because they haven't had enough staff - which is a management and budget problem. The Poussin and Claude rooms seem to be closed half the times I go, and sometimes entire enfilades of the Sainsbury Wing are out of bounds.  

It's all a sad reflection on the new corporate National Gallery. Once the contract is signed they will lose control of the must fundamental function of any gallery. They're putting the collection at risk and harming the visitor experience. And they are evading their own direct and primary responsibility to protect their pictures. Good luck the strikers, I say.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Visitor numbers and Faustian bargains

Picture: Trip Advisor
England's top museums had nearly two million more visits this year, according to the latest 'performance indicators', with nearly seven million visits to the British Museum and almost six million to the National Gallery. 

The BBC frets that the rise is driven by foreign visitors; UK visits are down significantly (a fifth since 2008/9 at the NG and Tate). I think the decline in domestic visits is partly a corollary of increased absolute numbers. As museums get more overcrowded, the experience gets worse. Major museums are no longer places to return again and again for pleasure; they are places where you must push through a scrum to get a quick glance at the obligatory '20 masterpieces' so you can tick it off the list of sights and move on. It's become a pretty miserable experience, so I can see why people put off visiting and return less often. I used to go the NG every couple of weeks, but I've only been twice in the months since photography has been permitted. 

As the world's population grows and gets richer, the problem is getting worse. Dozens of the greatest masterpieces are now almost impossible to see. But visitor numbers are an easily quantified 'performance indicator',  and everyone pays obeisance to the gods of access and inclusion, so no one wants to talk about it. The global population is about seven billion. If we assume seventy sentient years and one visit per person per lifetime, that implies visits to the world's greatest museums will rise to a hundred million (about a fifteen fold increase for the busiest English museums). However you play with the numbers, a bigger and richer population with increased leisure time and disposable income will mean increased museum visits. And it will be simply impossible for everyone to enjoy equal access. 

No one wants to confront the problem directly, because none of the solutions are palatable. But solutions are being developed by default, and without debate, and they are often the least palatable. In Italy many attractions are now time-limited. You can have just fifteen minutes in the Brancacci Chapel, one of the greatest masterpieces that inaugurated Renaissance painting. Close and careful study will be prohibited; you can only have a quick glance.  

In the UK and the US the solution is that only those who can afford to pay can see the art. In the UK it looks like the opposite - admission remains free. But museums are bifurcating visits between a mass-market 'experience' where visitor numbers are pursued above all else, and a luxury experience for the elite. We can see it most clearly at the National Gallery. They have worsened the mass experience, permitting photography and promoting selfies. The model is a once-only box ticking experience, quick snap in front of Sunflowers and move along for the next person. But at the same time, they have made the gallery available for evening hire for the first time. Precisely because the mass experience is getting worse, the elite private views become a more valuable commodity, and only the very rich get to see anything. There was rightly an outcry when Sistine Chapel was rented out for a private porsche tour, but the NG's change has gone largely unremarked and even welcomed in some quarters.

I don't have a good answer to the problem of overcrowding, but if we continue to ignore it and hope it goes away we will be letting great art become the exclusive property of the very rich. Fewer people will develop a serious interest in art because it will be harder and harder to see it, and the experience will be worse and worse - as we're seeing at the NG and Tate. Answers on a postcard please. 

On Blogging

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion
Apologies for the break in service. I'd planned to take a few days off to catch up on reading, but reading is moreish. And the art world has been more than usually frustrating recently. 

I try to avoid introspective posts like this, because they're a bit self-indulgent. But my blogging is almost pure self-indulgence, so why hold back. I find blogging cathartic, a chance to express frustration - and sometimes delight. I'm inordinately flattered that others read my posts, and I've relished responses received and connections made, but I try not to think too much about who I'm writing for or how to boost pageviews. What I hope I can do is give voice to a particular species that I think is neglected: the 'serious amateur'. There are lots of us out there, and we're a diverse bunch. We can be found staring at pictures or poring over books in the library. Some of us will be growling at the barbarians rustling crisp packets and playing with their phones, but we're not all grumpy. Some of us might even take selfies. 

'Serious amateur' is an ugly term, but I think you know who I mean. We're not professionals or experts, but we have more than a casual interest. We read academic books on subjects we neither teach nor formally study. We're the people who keep academic publishers afloat, and we're the tenacious museum-goers who return again and again to see the same things, the determined few who support the more arcane exhibitions that aren't about impressionism or Leonardo da Vinci.  

There are plenty of people who claim to speak for the 'average' visitor or reader, and everyone wants to reach out to the 'socially excluded'. It's relatively easy to assess success in the mass market. Just look at sales and attendance levels. And at the other extreme, professionals by definition are engaged in a process of mutual assessment and validation. There are fewer independent scholars today, and professional networks are more institutionalised with special privileges like private views, opening up a bigger gap between scholars and their readers, curators and museum goers. 

The people in the middle are left out. We have no direct voice and few advocates.We are the group that no one knows what to do with, taken for granted because we'll keep coming back whatever indignities the force upon us. Ironically people perceive that museums are designed solely for serious amateurs like me, and they must be dumbed down and popularised by force. In reality they're already speeding ahead of their supposed 'critics'. Wall text is often dumbed down so far as to be meaningless and museums' 'public engagement' departments find it odd that anyone would want to look art art rather than play interactive games and take selfies. Mark Greif has written a perceptive essay addressing parallel concerns in academic writing, noting how academics today struggle as public intellectuals not because they are obscure, but because when they're addressing a wider audience they feel the need to dumb it down too much. It's a brilliant essay that addresses many points that concern me too; do read it.

I hope my modest little blog is a window on the world of one of 'us'. I don't claim to speak for all, but I suspect some of my gripes and frustrations are common to many who don't have professional privileges but want a deeper engagement than is often on offer. My views are likely more trenchant, my expression more forthright and my outlook  more grumpy than others'. But in this, my modest little blog, let me give voice to a little squeak of protest from one of the maligned middling minds. 

Ideas have been backing up and I have some rants to get off my chest, so I should be able to resume more frequent service. It was good to take a break and indulge in some more sustained thinking, which I hope will be fodder for future posts.