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Alleging Unfair Dismissal, Former Workers at London’s National Gallery to Auction Art for Employment Lawsuit

Taking a stand against what they call the “exploitation of ‘bogus’ self-employment in the arts,” twenty-seven artists and art lecturers are auctioning off original artworks to raise money for a lawsuit against London’s National Gallery, which the group alleges terminated them unfairly and without benefits last October after misclassifying them as freelance contractors. The case could set a precedent for gig employment in the public sector and workers’ rights in the art industry, in which workers frequently face exploitation with unpaid or low-paid labor.

According to Artnet, the claimants had worked in the gallery’s education department on a freelance basis but are now asking to be recognized as employees in order to retroactively receive minimum wage, paid vacation and sick days, and protection from termination. “We have reason to believe the Gallery has made deliberate attempts over several years to evade awarding us fair employment status,” the former freelancers, who all worked at the gallery for at least ten years and are going by the name NG27, wrote in an online statement. “We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes. We were required to attend staff training and team meetings and received formal reviews of our work. But we had no job security or employment rights.” Their case was heard at a preliminary hearing in July.

With thirty-two days to go, their crowdfunding campaign has received, as of this writing, roughly half of their goal of $83,280, money that will go toward their legal fees. To raise further funds, the NG27 artists are launching an online auction tomorrow, August 29. The works will be inspired by paintings in the National Gallery’s collection—which includes works by Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Francisco Goya—and will be listed on eBay for twenty-four hours with starting prices of $27.

In a statement, the National Gallery, which is among the UK’s most popular museums, dismissed NG27’s accusations and said that it had offered secure employment to the artists and lecturers. “It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the Gallery’s wish to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits,” the institution’s statement read. The institution said it had reached out to NG27 about their perspective between October 2017 and January 2018, and had offered jobs to all of the freelancers last year, but that some members did not express interest in the current openings.

The case is scheduled to be heard by an employment tribunal for eight days starting on November 26.