The National Gallery of Australia plans to slash future acquisitions

The National Gallery of Australia plans to slash future acquisitions from 3,000 to about 100 annually as it announces it will shed at least 10% of its staff by the end of the year to grapple with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

NGA management issued a call for voluntary redundancies on Tuesday as staff were told that the organisation would be undergoing a restructure to “modernise” the gallery and ensure its continuing sustainability.

The restructure requires shedding between 10% and 12% of its more than 300 staff to make up the remaining $1.5m of a $3.26m shortfall. Staff across the organization have been invited to submit applications for voluntary redundancy. Approximately 30 jobs are expected to go.

The gallery is simultaneously planning to dramatically cut its art acquisitions as part of a strategy to focus on “masterworks rather than volume”.

Guardian Australia understands that officials from the Community and Public Sector Union were told of the projected reduction in acquisitions during a briefing about the forthcoming job losses.

While the NGA’s budget for acquisitions is separate to its core operational costs, including staff wages, Guardian Australia understands that the reductions in art acquisition are also part of a broader strategy to manage the gallery with fewer resources, along with smaller, more temporary exhibitions.

This year the gallery controversially spent almost half its annual acquisition budget on the $6.8m artwork Cube by the US artist Jordan Wolfson. The installation was later delayed by a coronavirus. Advertisement

The NGA’s budget difficulties precede the coronavirus crisis. The gallery exceeded its budget by $12.8m in the 2018-19 financial year, eventually reporting a $10.7m loss, despite an initial $30.6m contribution from the federal government that year being increased to $45m.

The NGA embarked on its new acquisitions strategy last year after Nick Mitzevich took the reins as director.

“The new focus for the collection is to acquire works of singular outstanding quality that will enhance its stature and relevance and to refine it through connoisseurship and by deaccessioning works that no longer contribute to its quality and impact,” Mitzevich wrote in the NGA’s 2019 annual report.

The NGA is required to submit works for deaccessioning – that is, the removal of artworks from the collection for sale – to the arts minister or other relevant minister for approval. Last year 225 objects from the Pacific arts collecting area were approved for deaccessioning.

Mitzevich said the organisationhad been grappling with “extraordinary pressures”, including rising costs, falling interest rates, loss of income due to Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions, and the continuing annual budget reduction from the commonwealth’s efficiency dividend.

He said the gallery was working with the federal government on obtaining Covid-19 relief, and had sought support from philanthropic bodies and other private sources of funding.

“The important thing is that I’m trying to deliver a mandate of running a sustainable gallery while delivering the mandate of what a national collection is supposed to do – support art in Australia,” Mitzevich told Guardian Australia.

He said the national collection was the “No 1 priority” and would be unaffected by the restructure as it was funded separately to core operations, as were major blockbusters and travelling exhibitions.

The CPSU has called on the federal government to exempt the gallery and other cultural institutions from the efficiency dividend.

“Our national institutions are struggling to cope under the pressure of years and years of budget cuts,” said Beth Vincent-Pietsch, the CPSU deputy national secretary.

“There is no fat for the gallery to cut, these staff cuts are only cutting into bone. Our members are seriously concerned about the impact these cuts will have on the gallery’s ability to collect, restore and exhibit in the future.”

The Australian Capital Territory’s chief minister, Andrew Barr, said on Tuesday that the news of job losses at the NGA was “hugely disappointing”, and that supporting national institutions was fundamental to the region’s recovery after coronavirus shutdowns.

“Right now, jobs are the priority,” Barr said. “Every jurisdiction is trying to get their economies back on their feet.

“When the commonwealth can fund $500m for the redevelopment of the War Memorial, there should not be job losses in other institutions.”

A spokesperson for the NGA refused to comment further on the reduction in acquisitions.

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