The past number of weeks have been difficult for the Gallery. Comments about the Gallery café and the result of the tendering process have been critical. Specifically, we have received reactions from some members of staff and from groups in the arts and academic communities. I ask them to accept this as my reply to their open letters.
The Gallery finds itself at the centre of a clash between public sector wide rules designed to ensure fair procurement and the strongly expressed views of those who believe the Gallery’s values and ethos have been compromised by association with Aramark.
In this discourse our commitment to our values has been questioned. Our support for people in Direct Provision has been questioned and the bona fides of our outreach programmes has been challenged.
I regret that the debate has been framed in these terms. In our work we have a number of guiding documents.
Our values, in the Strategic Plan 2019-23, are set out as ‘integrity’, ‘openness’, ‘creativity’ and ‘expertise’. Our Strategy also contains an obligation to, ‘ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements’, and affirms that the Gallery must, ‘fulfil responsibilities under the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies”. We also have an obligation to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights of staff and people availing of our services.
This obligation has been at the heart of our many programmes which have reached out to diverse communities - including those in Direct Provision - and which will drive an expansion of such programmes in the years ahead as we exit the constraints of the pandemic.
I want to assure all of those who value, cherish, and wish to contribute to, this work that the awarding of a contract to a company which undertakes work for many other public sector bodies will have no impact on those programmes.
I sympathise with people’s concerns about the Direct Provision system. Plans to replace it with a new service have been published by Government.
The three pillars of our audience and stakeholders – the public, our funders and artists - are quite diverse and sometimes hold conflicting views. Our role in the Gallery is to be true to our values, our commitments and our programmes.
The Gallery has shown its commitment to people in Direct Provision by working on a project with 10 of them in 2020-21. Separately, we have a service agreement with an external provider, correctly procured, like others at the Gallery. It will disappoint some, but the café tender process has been run correctly and the result is one we abide by.
Stating these facts will not, I suspect, move the dial. There are mutually incompatible perceptions. One seeks to insulate our artistic and educational programmes from our operations, while the other knows we cannot operate different sets of government-defined standards from other public bodies.
There are no easy answers.
10 March 2022