You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?


If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out.  No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission.  However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table.  An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.

News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy.  Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out.  There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers.  Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.

Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard.  A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well.  Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.

Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:

  • Louvre: Allowed
  • Metropolitan: Allowed
  • National Gallery (US): Allowed
  • Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
  • Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel

There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself.  Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography.  Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles.  Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.

As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does.  Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse.  This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art.  Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.

The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem.  On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible.  On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.

From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I.  At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends.  So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.

What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums?  The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers


Sacred Art in Profane Institutions

This weekend while reading a book about the development of the major art museums which we enjoy in America today, I was struck by something which always bothers me about the nature of the institution of the art museum itself.  Many of the objects we see on these shores were purchased by the American nouveaux-riches to give themselves some polish, so as to make up for the smell of their very new money.   They went about despoiling European churches, convents, and residences of spiritual objects to use as status symbols or expensive playthings, in a millionaires-only game where religious institutions lost out to profane ones..

For example as the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt went about aiding the Havemeyers, a sugar baron and his society wife, over the course of several years in seeking out and purchasing a work by El Greco, there was a noticeable lack of interest both on the part of her patrons and of Cassatt herself regarding the religious aspects of the pictures under consideration.  In a letter to Mrs. Havemeyer, Cassatt describes a 13-foot-tall altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, which the Havemeyers were considering buying but which was too tall to fit inside their Fifth Avenue mansion [N.B. the piece later ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.]  In writing about it Cassatt notes nothing about the theological truths or spiritual virtues contained in the painting, but rather concentrates on the brushwork, the lines, and gives her verdict that it would be a good buy because the image of the Blessed Mother featured “a good head.”

If that’s all there was to recommend it, wouldn’t such a painting have been better-off being left in the church for which it had been painted? The counter-argument is, of course, that many objects such as these are better-preserved and cared for in museums, than they would have been had they been left in situ; in many cases such an argument is correct.  However, I can’t help but feel that the forest is being lost for the trees, in such an argument.

A similar back-and-forth over artistic  merit (and price) went on over the purchase of two of Raphael’s celebrated devotional images of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child, acquired by J.P. Morgan for the Morgan Library.  The issue in obtaining them was never about what such images of the Madonna and Child were supposed to teach the believer about the Incarnation.  Rather, the goal was to see how much Morgan could show off, when he would hold meetings with these private devotional paintings hanging on the wall: a more expensive versions of deer heads stuffed and mounted following a successful hunt.

Sometimes the unwillingness or inability of many of our great museums to wade into issues of Catholic theology – since the overwhelming majority of Christian sacred art in American art museums is Catholic in origin – is almost embarrassing, at times.  Placards and catalogue entries go into raptures over color choices and brushstrokes, linear perspective and chiaroscuro, and say little about the theology portrayed – often getting it wrong when they do.  Images before which generations of people brought their hopes and fears, to help them focus in their prayer life with God, are admired not for their ability to move the viewer to piety, but because of how bright the blue is, or how skillfully the tiny landscape behind the holy figures one is supposed to be concentrating on is painted.  There is a pointless superficiality and emptiness in this sort of collecting.  It is as if one was allowed to walk into the butcher’s shop and admire the marbling and the trimming of all of the fine steaks on display in the case, but one was never allowed to actually eat any of them.

This is not to say that one can never admire or appreciate an art object for its own intrinsic beauty.  However when it comes to the sacred art of the West, created by centuries and centuries of Catholics, the danger of allowing a secular museum to tell you what you ought to think about such objects lies in forgetting to question those secular shrines, and assuming their neutrality.  In realizing that profane institutions have many merits, but they are not the most trustworthy of guides, the smart museum visitor is the better-prepared visitor.  Learn what you can from these sources, but make sure you take their pronouncements about the art you see with some reservations.

"The Assumption of the Virgin" by El Greco (c. 1577-1579) The Art Institute of Chicago

“The Assumption of the Virgin” by El Greco (c. 1577-1579)
The Art Institute of Chicago

Detroit’s Art Collection: Under the Hammer?

As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems already…

In the latest chapter on the ongoing woes of the Motor City, the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (“DIA”) is now being targeted by creditors.  You may recall that late last year, Christie’s auction house was retained to value the roughly 1,700 works in the collection which had been purchased using public funds.  They concluded that these pieces were worth somewhere in the range of $454 to $867 million, depending on the often widely-ranging vagaries of the art market.

Not satisfied with that outcome, two different groups of creditors are now going on what we in the legal profession like to refer to as a “fishing expedition”, on the assumption that assets are being hidden.  One rather ridiculous demand is that the DIA give a full accounting of all of its financial and visitor records, going back to the founding of the museum nearly a century ago – which hardly seems germane to the issue at hand.  Another  is insisting that the DIA and Christie’s provide a valuation of the museum’s entire collection of well over 60,000 items, not simply valuing those objects purchased using taxpayer money.  You can read more about the details of these subpoenas, and why things have reached this point by reading this overview from The Detroit Free Press.

From a legal perspective, the attorneys for the creditors are simply doing their job.  There’s nothing at all strange about requesting thousands of pages of documents in a case, particularly when you are dealing with an unprecedented and enormous municipal bankruptcy such as this.  These are uncharted waters for everyone, not just the parties themselves, even though the bankruptcy rules themselves are quite plain.  Attorneys and courts have an obligation to clients and to the public in any bankruptcy proceeding to make sure that no assets are being hidden or left unvalued.

Yet lost in the shuffle here is the very sad fact that should these efforts lead to a massive sell-off of the DIA’s collection, it is the people of Detroit who are going to lose.  If the DIA is dismembered and sold on the open market, no amount of return will really be enough.  To paraphrase Aristotle, the value of an art museum as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As an institution, an art museum preserves the past artistic achievements of mankind, while serving to educate and inspire those who want to admire and learn from such achievements both at present and in the future.  The study of art is just as much the study of our own history, as it is the appreciation of beauty.  When we go to a museum and look at a painting or a sculpture, we learn not only who made it, but how, when, where, and why it was made.  We all benefit, general public and scholars alike, from the work that they do to remind us of who we are, and where we come from.

It is a pity that so many decades of incompetent management, corruption, and single-party governance have led Detroit to this point, where the haunting eyes of Constanza da Sommaia, one of the elegant Mannerist painter Bronzino’s favorite muses, may be about to disappear into some collector’s Swiss bank vault.

Detail of "Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia" by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540) Detroit Institute of Arts

Detail of “Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia” by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540)
Detroit Institute of Arts