Believe me, I am not picking on the Mulvane. Museums worldwide are grappling with this issue. As a museum professional and frequent museum visitor, I can relate to both sides. To the visitor who just wants to capture their visit or make note of an artist’s work for future reference, it appears that museums are bullying art snobs who do not want “their” artwork to be seen anywhere else. To the museum staffer, dealing with the constraints of artist reproduction rights and demands of lenders while providing educational opportunities and accessibility is a frustrating high-wire act.
What many don’t realize, as Perian Sully at Musematic summarized, is that museums may own artworks but not the rights to reproduce photographs of them, particularly those of modern and contemporary artists. Which is less costly, securing artist reproduction rights or litigation when those rights are ignored? In a museum that may hold thousands of objects in its collection, that choice is not as obvious as it seems.
Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 counters with the perspective that “an open photo policy is a cornerstone of any institution that sees itself as a visitor-centered platform for participatory engagement”, maintaining that restricting photography for security or conservation reasons deprives visitors from gleaning educational value from their visits.
I support the sanctity of intellectual property and certainly would not want someone illegally profiting from my work, but while most of the laws and contracts surrounding artist reproduction rights do not predate photography, they certainly did not anticipate the current array of methods in which images can be disseminated. Artists rights organizations, estates, foundations, trusts and lenders should work on updating their policies and coordinating them under a common umbrella, easing the frustration of museums trying to organize exhibitions and open their collections for their visitors’ virtual and physical enjoyment. Until this happens (hope springs eternal!), Museums should make every effort to secure reproduction rights at the time of artwork acquisition. Barring that, museums should follow the Mulvane’s example (its signs stated its rules were for the protection and future enjoyment of the art), gently explaining why such restrictions are in place rather than simply hanging signs that say “No” and accosting visitors in the galleries.
Picture A Museum Day participants, save yourself some heartache: call in advance or check the museum’s website for photo policy before you visit.