Restructured NGA To Slash Staff and Acquisitions
By Ophelia Lai
Faced with a AUD 3.26 million (USD 2.24 million) budget shortfall, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra will lose 10–12 percent of its staff and reduce the number of its acquisitions as part of an organizational restructure.
“To ensure fairness,” NGA director Nick Mitzevich initiated a voluntary redundancy process that will stay open for three weeks starting on June 23. Further layoffs are in the cards if the voluntary stage fails to make up the target cuts. With around 300 full- and part-time employees, the museum is expected to axe at least 30 jobs.
The Guardian Australia reported on the day of Mitzevich’s announcement that the NGA would also slash the number of artworks it purchases from around 3,000 to 100 pieces per year, figures that the museum “refutes,” according to a subsequent article by Artnet News. The NGA claims its annual AUD 16 million (USD 11 million) acquisitions budget will remain the same, albeit directed toward “masterworks rather than volume.” The museum added that it currently does not plan to deaccession works in order to free up funds.
The NGA has faced financial difficulties for years, incurring a net deficit of AUD 22.1 million (USD 17.3 million) in 2016–17 according to a report by the Australian National Audit Office presented in June 2018, shortly before Mitzevich began his five-year tenure as the museum’s director.
The restructure was prompted in large part by the federal government’s efficiency dividends, an “annual reduction in funding for the overall running costs of an agency” introduced in 1987 by Labor prime minister Bob Hawke in the interest of incentivizing increased productivity in the pubic sector. The Australian Public Service has mandated a AUD 1.5 million (USD 1 million) drop in the NGA’s operations budget this year, as explained by The Conversation. This is the latest in a line of funding cuts for the arts imposed by successive conservative governments, exacerbated by further economic pressures, including a sharp decline in revenue from ticket sales and other customer expenditures at the venue due to Covid-19, as well as falling interest rates and increasing utility costs.
On June 25, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison approved a new 12-month relief package for the struggling cultural industries, with AUD 250 million (USD 172 million) in grants and loans spread across the arts, film, music, and entertainment sectors. This adds to the AUD 1 billion (USD 688 million) federal multi-industry Relief and Recovery Fund unveiled in late March as well as the AUD 27 million (USD 18.6 million) pledged in April to Indigenous and regional arts organizations and the arts charity Support Act. The Australia Council for the Arts also announced in March that it would repurpose AUD 5 million (USD 3.4 million) to support artists and organizations, but the federal agency came under fire weeks later for defunding arts organizations including the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney, in addition to reducing funding to successful grantees.
According to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which represents NGA workers, the museum needs to accrue AUD 6.8 million (USD 4.7 million) in savings over the next five years in order to become “sustainable.” The CPSU has urged the government to exempt cultural organizations from the efficiency dividends.
Speaking to ArtsHub, Mitzevich maintained that the restructure was “about reshaping the national gallery, and it is not just about cost cutting.” He further clarified that the acquisition budget remains the same while jobs have to be cut because “[there are] two pots of money: one is operational and one is for the development of the collection . . . Both sit under separate bills of parliament. I can’t tip one bucket into another.”
The NGA stated, “The new structure will focus the National Gallery's programs and create greater opportunities for the Australian and international community to engage with the national collection beyond its physical presence in Canberra.”
Back in March, the NGA controversially spent AUD 6.8 million (USD 4.7 million) on a commissioned animatronic installation by Jordan Wolfson that, in the American artist’s words, can “play its own body like an instrument” and “rape the floor.” According to The New Yorker, Mitzevich hoped that the acquisition would attract out-of-town visitors to the Canberra gallery. The work was slated for exhibition in early 2021 but installation has been delayed to June at the earliest due to Covid-19-related disruptions to production and travel.
Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.
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