Staff at the National Gallery of Ireland have been told by its director Sean Rainbird to "think hard" about raising issues related to the gallery's activities following a controversy about it entering a contract with Aramark to run the facility's cafe.
In an email to staff, Mr Rainbird wrote, “My conclusion is: if you think you have valid cause, think hard about the possible consequences before you initiate an action, and think carefully about how you raise the issue.”
The contract with Aramark – worth €7.5 million over three years – caused discontent among many gallery staff who wrote to its board warning of potential reputational damage given Aramark’s links to the direct provision system in Ireland. Staff said the association with Aramark was “in direct conflict” with years of work the gallery had put into building relations with asylum seekers and those in direct provision.
When news of the contract was made public, several artists removed their work from an exhibition at the gallery, it was petitioned by the public to cut ties with Aramark, and a protest took place outside the gallery which was organised by the End Direct Provision action group.
In his email on March 31st, Mr Rainbird cited the war in Ukraine as an event that ended this controversy. "The invasion of Ukraine brought an abrupt end to the extensive reaction within the wider arts community to our cafe tender," he wrote. "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 very closely."
He bemoaned the amount of time and resources the cafe contract controversy had taken up. “The internal impact, after a period of concentrated activity to provide a public response – currently posted on our website – has placed a large amount of work onto a few sets of shoulders,” he wrote. “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.”
He directed staff to the gallery’s communications and social media policies. He also told staff that the increase in Freedom of Information requests they were now fielding “are time-consuming to answer”.
Condition of anonymity
A gallery staff member speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Irish Times that staff responded to the email with “shock . . . I think baffled is another word”. They said the communication from Mr Rainbird was “leaving a feeling that we’re unsure about where this is going and where the leadership actually lies at the moment”.
The Irish Times contacted the National Gallery of Ireland for comment. It said: “We have no comment at this time.”
The gallery said in February it awarded the catering contract to Aramark following a public procurement process, as the company scored highest across set assessment criteria.
The cafe was previously run by an Irish company, Brambles.
Aramark, a US multinational company, provides catering services to three direct provision centres, located in Athlone, Clare and Cork.
Aramark has said it operates to the “highest international standards”, and that policy around direct provision “is a matter for Government”. It said earlier this year when the controversy erupted that its work in direct provision was “to support residents living in the three centres where we operate, and work diligently to uphold our commitment to treat all clients equally”.