The National Gallery found itself the centre of a large PR pickle this week as the dirty word ‘privatisation’ was bandied back and forth over its decision to outsource gallery invigilation to security firm CIS, to the mass dismay of unions. Indeed, anyone who visited ‘Rembrandt: the late works’ will have noticed for the first time no invigilator chairs, and heavies in suits lurching around. It has been suggested that these suits are incapable of disseminating any kind of art historical knowledge, though my experience was a little different, when a guard gave me a startlingly in depth and serious lecture on ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman’, before curtly and forcefully scolding me for pointing. (I spent the rest of the exhibition afraid to unstick my elbows from my sides, gingerly extending my pinky at hip level). This isn’t about protecting paintings – it’s impossible to predict when a misguided chap like Vladimir Umanets will choose to attack one of Tate’s Rothkos as part of a pro-Yellow manifesto – but about the endless battle to stay financially viable.
London is made special by its accessibility of museums: trips to must-see galleries in Florence or Paris for example will quickly lighten your pocket, and remind you how lucky we are to visit these galleries as many times as we like for free. Visiting figures have doubled in the decade since galleries were made free in 2001. To make up the cost, as well as frequenting one of the major blockbusters which so far have remained the right side of cynically ‘popular’, you can buy unique tea blends “inspired by the masterpieces” (‘Eau de beheaded Lady Jane Grey’, anyone?), or a tapestry version of ‘Sunflowers’ for just over £100; the National has got a very canny/ruthless merchandising buyer (see also the V & A, operating a monopoly in nattily patterned knit your own ties or whatever.) The National is also looking to introduce for the first time a membership for £50.00 yearly.
Given the 6 million non-paying visitors it accommodates a year, combined with continuing government cuts, and the eye-wateringly cynical cashing in that is the shop and other calculating sources of revenue, the outsourcing of invigilation – aside from the inequality criticised forcefully by Polly Toynbee – is the ruthless but obviously logical result of accountants crunching the numbers. Cutting off the excess flab. It is likely the cack-handed and blunt manner in which the gallery rolled it out hasn’t done itself any favours, as keenly defended by outgoing director Nicholas Penny. It’s already been quietly done at the Imperial War Museums. Toynbee suggested the installation of CIS in the Sainsbury Wing in effect scared the crap out of the gallery staff, and this is probably true: with no funding, there’s no room for picking your favourite room to invigilate (workers disliked the Poussin rooms apparently) or other nicey-nice touches. Which brings me on to the other big fish this week: the donations of BP. You want to run a gallery for free? Better freshen up your drawers for some serious getting into bed with oil money. Moral concerns aside, it seems the most consistent source of serious funding.