Thursday 22 July 2010


A few weeks back I was at SFMOMA. It was the first time I’d visited an art gallery with an iPhone, and the first time I’d seen such an open policy towards photography – no barriers, no restrictions. This is what I blogged about that visit.

Since I’ve got home, I’ve found myself pulling out my camera more and more – often surreptitiously, timing it around the attendants’ walk throughs. I feel guilty, but also justified: for example, sometimes I want to blog about a show – free publicity for the museum. Because I’m not “the media” as such I don’t get offered images the way other journalists do, and because I’m not “the media” – this isn’t my full time job – I don’t often bother to ask for images.

The other reason I take photos is that I'm doing a fortnightly spot on Nine to Noon on RadioNZ with Kathryn Ryan, talking about art matters. On the Sunday before I go on air I prepare my pages of notes - usually 3-4 A4s - which I pass on to RadioNZ, occasionally accompanied by photos, if I think they'll help.

So it occurred to me that the topic of taking photos in art galleries could be a good topic for one of these spots, so that's what I covered yesterday.

Visitor photography policies

In preparation, I did an email around to various contacts in museums and galleries around the country. First up, I'd like to thank all the people who got back to me with prompt, clear and often very thoughtful responses. It became clear to me that many of our arts institutions are grappling with their photography policies in this day of small devices and relentless recording and sharing of our experiences with our networks.

The policies I received back broke down into 3 categories:

1. Open access

This is more likely in museums. Both Canterbury Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum allow photography throughout their galleries for non-commercial use, unless there are specific restrictions in a temporary show.

Auckland Museum is particularly interesting. They welcome photography and video in all their permanent galleries, and all their own special shows. The response I received noted:

The uptake of photos out there in blogs, Flickr, and Facebook, plus You Tube videos is tremendous for us. And it's even better for school kids, who can now base projects around our collections and galleries more easily.

Some galleries are also negotiating permission on a show by show or artist by artist basis. The Govett Brewster in New Plymouth did this recently for their anniversary show, when they got approval from the exhibiting artists – Don Driver, John Reynolds and Pae White – for visitors to take photos.

This flags an interesting conundrum. I visited that show, and would have liked photos for this blog. However, I assumed photography was banned, and didn't see any signage indicating I was welcome to photograph these particular shows. How do we tell our visitors what they can and can't do, without interfering with current signage, or creating the Te Papa 'you can touch that - and that - but not this...' problem.

2. Limited access

Several galleries and museums permit photography under certain conditions:

  1. Non-commercial/personal use
  2. Wide-shot: not close-ups of specific works, but photos of the wider space.
  3. No flash, no tripods.

Examples include the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University in Wellington, Te Papa, and the New Dowse in Lower Hutt. This policy skirts the copyright line; the theory being that if it's not a close-up, it's not copyright infringement.

3. No photography

Several galleries have a blanket ban on photos, including Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery Wellington.

The main reason cited was that given copyright and lending agreement complexities, it was easiest to just say no.

Reasons for saying no

The first reason cited is usually conservation, although this applies to flash photography particularly, and even the concerns around this are not, as far as I can see from some googling, well documented. In fact, most of the information I could find was on blog talking about the lack of data.

The second is copyright. God knows this is a tough one to get around, with the artists' copyright being complicated by restrictions private and public institutions put on works they lend and exhibitions they tour. I would love to see more galleries following the GBAG's lead and asking artists for permission for personal photography in shows of their work. Pragmatically, people are taking photos already - why not make this a selling point for them?

Finally, visitor experience. This Michael Kimmelman article and the associated comments does a good job of aggregating the ways people feel about looking at art, and how they feel cameras and photography can aid or impinge upon their experience.


I would like to see more galleries and museums adopt an open policy towards photography for personal use, in consultation with the artists they are showing.

I honestly cannot see the harm of people taking photos and sharing them on Flickr or Facebook or Twitter, or just showing them to friends and family. If someone cares enough to take a photo and share it, it's usually as a recommendation or simple 'I am here, I am doing this' broadcast - both of which are the kinds of word of 'mouth' activities you think institutions would be dying to encourage (exhibit A: 'It's Time We Met', the Met Museum's crowd-sourced marketing campaign).

This is not saying that copyright, conservation, and visitor experience don't matter. Because I don't think that's what SFMOMA was saying. Instead, it's saying to visitors that we value their attendance, and understand their actions. And that's got to be good thing.

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