National Gallery ends financial partnership with Italian arms company Finmeccanica

Disarm the Gallery: A lovely tale of campaigning success

Chris Browne

A couple of days ago I left for work early, cycling with my friend in the tepid autumn sunlight to Abney Park Cemetery in North London. Outside my work at Pluto I occasionally take photographs of things for campaigning organisations, and both my friend and I have been involved for the last year or so in ‘Disarm the Gallery’ – an offshoot of the larger Stop the Arms Fair Coalition (STAF).

We’d made a pit-stop at Abney Park on my usual cycle through Stoke Newington, with our panniers containing my camera and a few home-made zombie limbs – papier-mâchéd and painted green, their humorously skeletal fingers protruded out of our bags, inviting double-takes from bus drivers and pedestrians making their way along Church Street.

Walking through the cemetery, which is the overcrowded and overgrown resting place of nearly two-century’s worth of political and religious non-conformists, we pitched up at a number of particularly choice gravestones and plonked the zombie arms into the earth in a series of different poses. The idea was to take pictures of zombies rising up out of the ground, ready to join the ranks of the righteous, anti-militarist undead who were planning to swarm on the National Gallery at Halloween. The anti-militarist undead would be the giddily excited (because facepainted), but nonetheless pissed off activists from Disarm the Gallery. The pictures were intended as social media buzz-generators for what promised to be the latest in a series of creative, high profile actions against the Gallery because of its links to the arms trade.

A little context then. The campaign’s genesis was in September 2011, during last year’s DSEi arms fair, when arms dealers were invited to a special event inside the National Gallery, where wine and nibbles would be consumed in opulent surroundings, and perhaps deals might be discussed. They didn’t know we knew about it and so we had a lot of fun on the day. However, it later transpired that this was no one-off liaison between one of our most famous public institutions and the nefarious, venal world of gun-running.

Finmeccanica, Italy’s largest arms manufacturer, had at that point nurtured a 5-year old relationship with the Gallery, where it gave them an annual £30,000 in exchange for the use of the Gallery as a function space throughout the year. Disarm the Gallery’s intent was to embarrass and shame the Gallery publicly until this relationship became untenable. In March a number of us had dressed up in stereotypical French painter garb (think berets and paint-covered smocks) and spelled out the message ‘disarm the gallery’ across 18 identical easels. Some clever people even made a video of it.

On a later day of action, small groups of us broke off inside the Gallery and wrote similar messages on sketch pads in the larger rooms, then donned the same berets – by now an entrenched visual signifier of our group – and held up our messages until security kicked us out.

The zombie demo was going to be the biggest and best action by far. We’d heard that Finmeccanica were hosting an event in the Gallery on October 31st. Made ebullient by the fact that this most sinister of industries was turning up on Halloween, of all days, we had quickly waved away any lingering concerns about the doubtful connotations of invoking the ‘undead’, and shoe-horned the fun, if not-quite-relevant idea of a zombie protest onto the agenda. There would be choreographed ‘Thriller’ flashmobs, hoards of groaning, staggering protesters outside the gallery, and (we hoped) lots of media ready to lap up the highly visual escapades.

Our sojourn into Abney Park was, it turns out, time wasted. By the time we got home I’d whittled the number of potential images down to about 20 and was about to edit them when I heard the brilliant news.

Though they were still embargoing it at this point, the Alternative Nobel Prize winners, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) had got an email from the National Gallery telling them that their long-standing sponsorship arrangement with Finmeccanica had ended, over a year early. The next day the press-release went out, with the sad caveat that there would be no mass mobilisation of the undead on October 31st:

A Gallery spokesperson told CAAT that Finmeccanica had “exercised their right to terminate” the agreement, but refused to disclose what discussions had preceded this decision.

Italian weapon manufacturer Finmeccanica has been one of the National Gallery’s ‘corporate benefactors’ since 2006. The contract was due to run until 1 October 2013.

In the wake of this campaign victory (what a beautiful word that is…), Sarah Waldron, a member of Disarm the Gallery who works at CAAT, gave me the following quote:

This was such an inspiring campaign to be part of: it was a fantastic joint effort with so many different groups and individuals coming together with passion and creativity. We’re glad that this energy and commitment has paid off – with a result that we hope will form an important part of a wider challenge to the arms trade in society and will help other campaigns against unethical corporate sponsorship in the arts. This is only the start!

Shiv Malik also wrote a piece in the Guardian last night, highlighting the campaign’s success.

Leaving aside the disappointment of the cancelled demo, there are some serious reflections to be made. At a time when the government continues to slash and burn all that’s best in our society; when corporate and political unaccountability runs rampant; when what little hope we kindle of our own democratic power to right such monumental wrongs seems all but spent, a win like this can’t be overestimated.

The sums of money involved – £30,000 a year – may seem scant compared to the money Oil continues to pump into the arts, and positively minuscule when we step back and examine the scale of corporate/political incest, but it is a decisive moment in our history. It is a moment when another finger was prised away from the arms trade’s iron grip on its own public image. It is a moment that will reverberate along the corridors of power where men make decisions they would rather others didn’t scrutinise. Most of all it is proof that together we can say No to something, and if we persist that ‘something’ will stop.

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves of course. This is a stepping stone, and a victory that will allow us to refuel our batteries and stave off burnout for another year. In 2013, DSEi, the world’s largest arms fair, is returning to the Excel Centre in London. Here the world’s most repressive regimes will come to strike deals with companies only too happy to sell them weapons. And it is here that we focus our attention once more. This is a much more formidable opponent, but there is surely a great deal more conviction and hope floating around today than there has been for some time.

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