Hugh Linehan: Lessons of the Avoca-Aramark-National Gallery controversy

It would be a shame if the National Gallery Aramark controversy failed to prompt debate

If you were advised to “think hard” before embarking on a particular course of action, how would you react? It depends, obviously, on who’s doing the advising and what their tone of voice is. Coming from a kindly teacher with an encouraging smile, it could be entirely positive. From a large man wielding a baseball bat, it might be interpreted a little differently.

On Thursday this newspaper reported that on March 31st, National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) director Sean Rainbird sent an email to employees, much of it dealing with internal housekeeping matters, the progress of particular exhibitions, the arrival of new staff, the postpandemic return to working on site, and so on.

Rainbird also made reference to a controversy which erupted some months ago over the gallery's decision to award the contract for running its café to Aramark, a multinational corporation which, as well as operating the Avoca café chain, provides catering services to companies around the country.

The controversy arose because Aramark is also contracted by the State to provide services to a number of direct provision centres. The inhumane and unethical system of direct provision for asylum seekers has been the subject of political agitation and contestation for a long time, including from Irish artists.


(Aramark, it should be noted, states that it operates its services in direct provision centres “to the highest possible standards”.)

If the core issue is the unacceptable actions of agents of the State, the logical consequence would surely be to refuse to deal with the State

So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise when the contract prompted an online public petition, the withdrawal by several artists of their work from exhibitions at the gallery, and a letter of protest from staff members that warned of “reputational damage” from the decision and argued that it was “in direct conflict” with work the NGI had previously undertaken to build relations with asylum seekers and those in direct provision.

In his mail Rainbird expressed the mildly provocative view that the invasion of Ukraine had brought an "abrupt end" to the whole controversy, adding: "It perhaps also brought a sense of perspective about a true upheaval, not least as thousands of refugees arriving here will need to be accommodated somewhere, something preoccupying the OPW [Office of Public Works] very closely."

He also complained that “the way this panned out made it difficult for the Gallery to speak with one voice, something we strive to achieve, and for good reason. The Communication and Social Media Policies are a good place to start for anyone seeking clarity”.

All of which led him to conclude that: “if you think you have valid cause think hard about the possible consequences before you initiate an action, and think carefully before you raise an issue.”

What to make of all this? The tone of exasperation in Rainbird’s mail is barely veiled. The admonition to staff to make themselves aware of the communications guidelines is pretty much par for the course from chief executives of organisations when this sort of internal ruction erupts into public view (whether such guidelines work or not is another matter entirely).

The “think hard” line chimes with that overall tone, although the unnamed staff member who told The Irish Times they were “shocked” by it appears to have led a sheltered life.

It would be a real shame if this incident failed to – or worse, was not allowed to – prompt some real discussion and cultural engagement with the issues it has raised. For its part, the gallery points out that as a State-funded national cultural institution, it is bound by Irish and EU regulations on public procurement and would be in breach of these if, as the protesters demanded, it cancelled its contract with Aramark .

What, then, do the protesting staff members suggest the gallery should do? The same question could be asked of the protesting artists, who can at least respond that it’s not their responsibility to fix a problem not of their making.

But if the core issue is the unacceptable actions of agents of the State, the logical consequence would surely be to refuse to deal with the State. If Aramark’s cappuccinos are tainted, so are the historic wings of the gallery, impressively refurbished recently by the same OPW that is responsible for the country’s direct provision centres.

That might be a reductio ad absurdum, but it’s offered as an example of the complexities that surround the intertwining relationships between nationally subsidised cultural institutions, practising artists and political activism. If artists or arts workers want to move beyond actions that are purely performative or symbolic (which have their own value), then some form of engagement is needed.

It’s part of the job of people such as Rainbird to facilitate that engagement, which if it’s actually going to be meaningful, should require everyone to “think hard”.