After rain on a Friday evening, sunlight fills the Gray Square courtyard of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) on Thomas Street.
A student pulls dirt from the drain hole of an upside-down silver bathtub. Another plays a vague melody on an out-of-tune piano in the Concourse, a student neighborhood.
Members of the Art in the Contemporary World MA course leave the Harry Clarke Building following a meeting regarding their upcoming project, Tender.
Among them is harpist Méabh McKenna, who strolls through the square towards the Concourse with a classmate and a paper bag of pastries. The couple take a seat at a picnic table covered in Sharpie tags and The Simpsons caricatures.
Tendersays McKenna, is an interrogation of the National Gallery of Ireland and Aramark, the multinational food company, which runs three direct supply centers for asylum seekers in Cork, Clare and Westmeath.
Sixteen students designed 20 postcards, which examine the ethical implications of the gallery’s awarding of a three-year, €7.5 million coffee contract to Aramark, and the larger issues broad human rights laws against the state’s asylum system.
Scheduled to launch at NCAD on May 19, according to module coordinator Nathan O’Donnell, the postcards are to be distributed free of charge via an ACW order with the intention of being sent to the gallery.
Before the realization of Tender, the module behind the idea was a collaboration between the National Gallery and NCAD. But during its development, the gallery withdrew funding, a GoFundMe page for the project says.
The project stems from the hope that our cultural heritage, preserved within the gallery, will be treated with ethical tenderness, says McKenna. “With a human element of kindness.”
“If you work in fine art, I’m sure at some point you hope to work in or around the gallery,” she says.
“So to have this corrupted in such a visceral and ethical way is the big question we keep coming back to. Is the gallery an ethical instance? And what is its place in the cultural presentation of our aspirations?
The National Gallery of Ireland declined to comment on the withdrawal of the budget, the decision to conclude its collaboration with the Art in the Contemporary World module and the awarding of the contract to Aramark.
An Aramark representative said he was proud of his work in the three services he operates on behalf of the state, “unrelated to the other 45 centres”, adding that their services are accredited according to internationally audited standards. .
Origins of an exhibition
Tender comes from a 12-week module of the Art in the Contemporary World course, entitled “Museum Metabolisms, Collections and Futures”.
The module has been designed to examine how activism and artistic intervention have reshaped museum practice globally.
According to painter and student Leda Scully, the aim was to reflect on one wing of the gallery and critique its architecture, collection, and the wider context of the gallery.
“In previous years, they looked at the Shaw Room and responded to it by creating a journal,” Scully explains.
For 2022, she said, they had to analyze and investigate the Dargan wing.
Next to Leinster Lawn and facing Merrion Square, the Dargan Wing is the oldest part of the gallery, completed in 1864.
According to O’Donnell, they looked at issues such as representation and the ethics of patronage.
“We were looking at the intricacies of the gallery and the origins of the Dargan Wing Lights,” he says.
On the ground floor of the wing is painter Daniel Maclise’s enormous nightmarish depiction of Strongbow’s marriage to Aoife MacMurrow in 1170. The Norman militarist’s foot rests on a fallen Celtic cross. Aoife’s father, Dermot, the King of Leinster, has a look of horror on his face.
Upstairs, in the large aqua-green gallery, you’ll find a multitude of portraits of earls and countesses.
In an allegorical work, William of Orange triumphantly rides a white horse under the god of war and the goddess of abundance.
Another depicts the Earl of Ely’s family at their home in Rathfarnham. In the corner, a young Indian page, bent over, wearing two crowns on a cushion.
Scully says she’ll probably never be able to look at the collection the way she did before class. “Much of the collection is soaked in blood.”
“I don’t want to sound dramatic about it,” she said. “But if you go in and look, there are paintings with slaves, children who were taken away as some kind of madness for the upper classes.”
Said Scully: “It was the object of our criticism if we had continued to work on it.”
A changed orientation
The module started on February 4. But their focus shifted when, O’Donnell says, the students realized that Aramark was taking over running the cafe.
In a letter to the National Gallery’s board, staff expressed “deep distress and strong opposition” to the cafe’s contract.
The signatories wrote that they believe Aramark’s “values and working practices are at odds with those upheld by the National Gallery and its staff, and that their presence here will cause irreparable damage to reputation.”
Later, in February, three artists shortlisted for the Zurich Young Portrait Prize 2021 – Brian Teeling, Emma Roche and Emily O’Flynn – requested the removal of their works from the gallery.
Teeling, a photographer, says that in addition to shooting his work, Declan Flynn in Dublinhe also withdrew from a lecture he was to give.
“For me, the appeal of the National Gallery is that it’s a revered space where you can go and see classics, those masterpieces by incredible artists,” says Teeling.
“You can’t attribute a coffee to a company that profits from direct supply, from racist government policy, from the policy of this government,” he says. “You can not do that.”
Teeling found the awarding of the contract to Aramark particularly infuriating, after the gallery had previously hosted the exhibition Something from there at the end of 2020, with work by people living or formerly in direct pensions.
“They’re willing to go do something like that for the kudos and the media coverage,” Teeling says. “What a slap in the face.”
According to a proposal document of Tenderon February 18, the students toured the architectural features of the wing, but they were already concerned about Teeling’s action.
His vacant space had been replaced by another room, Portrait of Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins by Sarah Doyle.
At this point, the original plan to investigate the Dargan wing no longer resonated with them, says student and writer Lara Ní Chuirrín.
“Our two module coordinators simply asked if we wanted to pivot the project and we all jumped at the chance,” she says.
Coordinator O’Donnell says they felt it was impossible to ignore these developments.
“It was all what we envisioned,” he says. “We couldn’t ignore it, because it would have done a disservice to the module and the hardware.”
On March 10, National Gallery Director Sean Rainbird released a statement, saying some staff and groups in the arts and academia were critical of the outcome of the bidding process.
Rainbird said he sympathized with people’s concerns about the direct delivery system, while saying the gallery had shown a commitment to people in direct delivery through the Something from there project.
Separately, he said, the gallery has a service agreement with Aramark, which was “properly acquired.” “It will disappoint some, but the coffee bidding process went smoothly and the outcome is one we respect.”
According to Tender GoFundMe, the national gallery has retained a budget of €2,900 for the “Metabolisms, collections and museum becomings” module of the Arts in the Contemporary World course.
O’Donnell says the gallery told him “they didn’t want to get into a situation where they had to censor student work.”
Alternatively, he says, the students proposed that the gallery donate the money to the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) instead.
But ultimately, says O’Donnell, the gallery declined that idea.
A spokesperson for the National Gallery of Ireland said they would not comment on those matters.
A spokesperson for Aramark said decisions about national gallery partnerships rest with the gallery.
By April 28, crowdsourcing of the Arts in the Contemporary World course Tender reached its goal of €1,500, eventually reaching €2,760, with a promise to donate the excess to MASI.
Variations on a theme
The postcards, says Ní Chuirrín, are printed in riso and based on the drawings of the 16 students of the course. “It was inspired by gallery gift shops and it was a riff on that.”
One is a parody of a Google error page: “The National Gallery of Ireland is unfortunately not open to institutional criticism at this time. Please check again in four years.
Another card plays with dictionary definitions of the word “tender”, using example sentences such as “NGI surrendered its ethics to the tender mercy of the American multinational Aramark”.
A third cites the findings of a 2014 report by the Cork-based organization Nasc Migrant and Refugee Rights, which observed that asylum seekers described their food as “inedible, monotonous, too strictly regulated and culturally inappropriate”.
An Aramark representative asserts that the findings of this report do not reflect or refer to the company’s own services or quality standards.
They say that for the past eight years, Aramark sites have held resident focus groups on menu options to ensure meals are culturally diverse and sensitive.
Some of the other postcards directly criticize the national gallery, says Ní Chuirrín. “There are others who question the role of the museum, who question the role of the museum and the conditions in the centers of direct offer. There are memes and seriousness.
Ethical and moral consumption, says Ní Chuirrín, is one of their focal points in the project.
“It’s not necessarily a call to boycott the gallery or the cafe. It’s more of a presentation of information as we see it,” she says.
McKenna says that, fundamentally, their goal is to bridge a gap between public discourse and curatorial criticism.
“The idea of the postcard is that it’s an invitation to communicate with the gallery,” she says. “You are invited to write in response to the situation.”