Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bans on Sketching in Museums

Photo Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
The Victoria and Albert Museum has installed signs banning sketching in the special exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, according to the Guardian.

Such bans in special exhibitions have happened before at other museums. Several reasons are typically invoked: copyright restrictions, loan agreements, risk to the artwork, and traffic flow issues.

I don't know what museums can do about cellphone photography. That can get out of hand, with people backing up into artwork taking selfies and not even looking at the art.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch after Rembrandt, 1871
But banning sketching seems like an unfortunate policy. Museums should recognize the importance of sketching as a primary way that artists engage with the tradition. Rather than forbidding sketching altogether, it seems more reasonable to limit large drawing boards, easels, paints, sitting on the floor, or otherwise blocking visitors flowing through high-traffic exhibitions.

Artists copying at the Louvre by Winslow Homer
I think that sketching with pencil in a sketchbook 9 x 12 inches or smaller should be allowed anywhere. I'm not aware of any museum limiting note-taking with a pencil and a pad of paper. School kids routinely go through museums with clipboards. I see no reason to forbid sketching if it's done in neat, dry media in a hand-held pad.

Let's remember that many art museums began as extensions of art academies. Too many art museums these days think of themselves as extensions of the gift shop.

In the 19th century, institutions such as the Belvedere Museum and the National Gallery commonly set aside special days and times specifically for artists to visit and draw, according to Carole Paul.

There's hope. Some museums have taken the enlightened stance of encouraging sketching in quieter exhibits. Such programs as the Met's "Drop-in Drawing" and "Saturday Sketching" or the Getty's "Family Drawing Hour" are a step in the right direction.

I'd love to hear of your experiences in the comments.
-----
Five Tips for Sketching in Museums
Tips for sketching in museums from the U.K. blog Making a Mark
The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and Early- 19th-Century Europe by Carole Paul.
More at the Guardian (Thanks, Lucas)

51 comments:

Adrian Rostek said...

Great post and links below it, I am starting summer vacations in 3 weeks so I will have plenty of time to visit London galleries again and study old masters work.
Mr Gurney, what is your favorite portable medium to study paintings in your sketchbook?
Kind Regards
Adrian

Charles Valsechi said...

I have experienced this once or twice as well. Simply ridiculous.

thedailypainter said...

Honey Bunny and I just got back from a two day trip to LA specifically for museum visits. We went to the Norton Simon and The Getty and both places allow sketching AND photography. Photography is allowed in both places as long as you aren't hauling in some professional setup and no tripods. I think I might have worn out the "shutter" on my cell phone. There were people throughout both museums sitting on benches and sketching away. The only place that The Getty limited photography was in a special exhibit of tapestries.

I think some museums just get a little snooty and a bit full of themselves.

Neyutt said...

That´s dumb, when I was in school (I am currently 19), I got quite exited everytime we visited the old master gallery in the city (Dresden, Germany), I admired Rubens work a lot, because I knew what craftmanship is behind his paintings. My classmates were rather bored tho, because the guide was just telling them history facts and dry composition analysis about those. I think museums often don´t make the right approach to present art to younger audience. I remember when I was really little like 3rd of 4th grade there was a Dürer exhibition in the gallery, where you could try out lithography by tracing a Madonna drawing, that was pretty cool, so instead of just overwhelming visitors with history, museums should employ artists, to show them, what exactly makes the old masters "masters".

Tom Hart said...

The no-sketching policy is another example of a disconnect between some curators (or administration) and the tradition that creates the very art that is being honored by the exhibit. I suppose other poorly informed players could be responsible too: security specialists or insurance companies, for example. As you point out James, the illogic of apparently discriminating between note-taking and dry-media is just bizarre and ignorant. Even wet media can easily be regulated and should be allowed, within reasonable limits.

We should all respectfully question this policy - a polite but firm email to the powers-that-be at institutions that have such a ban is well worth the effort. After all, artists are patrons too, and for the public to see active and unobtrusive sketching could only be a plus.

Jessica P said...

No sketching in museums?? That is awful. They are the BEST places to sketch. When I was at Pratt sketching at the Met was actually mandatory. And I still do it.

They don't allow paint inside (except once the Soho Atelier was painting there, special case i guess) and maybe pastels you wouldn't get away with.... but at least at the met large drawing boards and sketchers are still fashionable.

Christine Cancelli said...

I was speaking to an artist friend of mine recently who told me the Frick opens its doors on Wednesday evenings to allow artists to sketch in the galleries. They even provide materials if you don't have any! There's a wonderful sculpture by Houdon titled "The Dead Thrush" which I'd like to draw from. I hope I can get into the city to take advantage of this opportunity. The Frick has remained unchanged for decades now, but it's not because they're a stuffy museum caught in a time warp. They're special exhibitions are impeccably curated, and beautifully hung, and their website is one of the best I've ever seen. It's easy to navigate, and full of information about the collections and current exhibits. You can see every exhibit - past, present and future, and every work in every exhibit with just a click of a button.
Museums these days think their job is to provide entertainment rather than a place where people can go to look at art. I realize they are providing a service with these exhibits, but at what cost? In their never-ending quest for the next big extravaganza, they've lost sight of their mission, which is to provide public access to works of art in an historical context. Museums nowadays are too crowded, too expensive and too inaccessible (re: no sketching).
I recently visited the Van Dyck exhibit at the Frick, which is extraordinary. I wrote about it in my own blog: http://thefoxsbrush.blogspot.com
BTW, I love your blog! I'm in awe of your knowledge and ability. Thank you for providing so much great information!
Christine M. Cancelli

Vladimir Venkov said...

I think they should ban looking in museums as well. OMG...

Vladimir Venkov said...

I am a long time V&A sketcher and the headline of your post really scared me. :) Its good that it is only for this particular exhibit but still quite ridiculous. I hope it doesn't happen often...

Juan Carlos Barquet said...

Several museums in Switzerland asked me to stop sketching with a pen, but pencil was always allowed, which I thought was interesting. One of them even provided me with one since I didn't have my own that day.

Gary Hoff said...

Given that the genie is already out of the bottle in so many places, seems silly and rather counter-productive to disallow sketching. I agree with you, James. There is simply no reason at all why a small pad and dry media should be outlawed, in particular when you can use the very same materials to write words....absurd and unneeded.

David Webb said...

London seems to be getting very artist unfriendly. Ken Howard OBE, member of the Royal Academy, wrote a while back, that he was moved on for setting up an easel in Trafalgar Square. The reason? Health and safety.
He said "If these people had been around in previous generations, we wouldn't have paintings by Monet, Whistler, Sisley or Boudain,"

Warren JB said...

Seems a bit harsh. Did they give a specific reason for this exhibit?

Last time I was in London I visited the National Portrait Gallery, and was excited to see they were putting on a 'Late Shift' drop-in drawing class the same night. I went right back! There are so many fantastic museums and galleries in London (A bit frustrating when you have only a couple of days to look around, during infrequent visits) and while I don't expect every one to put on sketching or drawing events like that, it's a pity that some actively bar sketching.

I can't say I disagree too much about selfies, though. You could argue they're a form of self-expression, but also a form of trendy narcissism. More about the photographer than, as you say, about the art. Or whichever location or event they're at. But then I feel that direct photography, especially on mobiles/cells, can be overdone too - turned into a way to capture so many little moments of the experience that you wonder if the photographer might forget to have the experience!
I have my sketchpads, and some snapshots can be a welcome reminder, but - not to promote the gift shop mentality too much - I've taken to buying souvenir books. Preferably with big, glossy, professional photographs of the exhibits I've just seen. I've gathered a few from the London museums I've visited, including the V&A! Maybe I'm playing into their hands...?

Glenn Tait said...

James, I have wondered about how you are able to set up at certain venues. In "Watercolor in the Wild" you did the Tortise sketch at the Royal Ontario Museum and have shown other sketches from similar institutions. Apart from your painting set up you also have you camera filming on a tripod which would expand the working space required. Do you need special permission from the museum for something like this? Are there any other situations/complaints you come up against in such a setting?

sfox said...

I've sketched on and off in a number of art museums over the years, including the Met and British Museum and have never had a problem. Nor should there have been...

Lydia Rae Black said...

I was able to do some sketching when Bodyworlds came to San Jose, and I just went with my pencils and book, talked to the security guard, who was super-friendly, and spent three hours drawing a man's backside.

The next week the Tech Museum sent a notice to my school, wanting to assert the copyright of the exhibition over any drawings to be made in the future. It was super disappointing and came off as greedy and exploitative.

Lydia Rae Black said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mdmattin said...

I would go so far as to say that you haven't really seen a picture until you've sketched it. "Looking with your pencil" as one teacher put it.
Although sketching does result in a derivative image, the main benefit is your own experience of doing it.
I try to avoid the blockbuster shows where "traffic control" is an issue - even if sketching is not banned, it's hard to get in the zone with audiotour zombies bumping into you. But that doesn't stop me from doing it anyway, hoping to counter the "hurry up and move along so I can check another one off my list" mentality by asserting the "slow down and really get lost in one picture" approach.
The notion of asserting copyright on sketches is beyond absurd!

Rich said...

"No sketching allowed!" That looks plain absurd to me: throwing the sketchers into the same pot as i-phone-snapshooters and selfiemen, abundant here in Germany as well. But sketchers? I have hardly seen one in a museum here yet. And in general, if museum-visitors meet one, they tend to look at him with some respect at least, for the skills deployed: they tend to look at him as a potential Artist, someone who'se future work might be put in front of their very noses in the museum they are roaming about.

Can't imagine such a prohibition sign here yet; but who knows how things will look five years later...

Ahmet Faruk Çetin said...

in our country it is also forbidden for us and depends on nothing, i will never understand what can cause because of a little sketchbook and a graffit pencl

Rene Fijten said...

I was not allowed to take my Urban sketching drawing stuff to the Taj Mahal in India. (a moleskine A5, some ink fountain pens and a small watercolour box). We split the stuff within our travelling group, and I was able to make a few sketches anyway.
On other locations it was not allowed to take photographs, but I asked and sketching was okay (Rome, santa maria conzessione).
As for Bodyworlds, I was even invited to draw there, on a special sketching day (Amsterdam).

David William Terry Fine Art Portraits said...

One of the greatest experiences I've had was copying a Turner at the Tate Gallery in London. At that time, 1986, the Tate allowed artists to bring in a canvas and paints one afternoon each week. The Gallery would supply the easel and a locker. On my appointed day I would head over and paint all afternoon, with throngs of people passing by. I learned as much from that experience as any I can remember. It is a shame more museums don't recognize the vital link between the art they display and the development of artists.

Steve said...

For several years, my daughter lived in Boston. This was followed by several years in Chicago. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago both allow pencil sketching. In Chicago, maximum paper size is 13 x 17, in Boston it's 18 x 24. I seem to recall groups of students sketching in both museums -- which makes sense as both museums conduct their own classes. For individuals, the basic guidelines were to not block the view and don't restrict traffic flow. Both museums had a policy of only sketching their permanent collection, no special exhibits. Given the treasures in both institutions, that didn't feel like a hardship. I never did it, but Boston allows painting in the galleries if you apply for a permit to do so. I don't know how the permit approval process works. Anyway, these two museums are good examples of institutions that have amazing collections and welcome sketching.

Leif said...

Last time I was at BodyWorlds I sketched a horseshoe kidney. At some point the guard stopped me and said, "It's OK to sketch as long as you have as many words as pictures".

As an aside -- I am glad photos are not allowed at BodyWorlds because otherwise, I would not be able to resist spending most of the time taking photos instead of enjoying the exhibit.

Rich said...

huh...was just wondering what would happen, if in Chicago some sketcher shows up with a paper size 13 x 18, or in Boston with 19 x 24...;o)

But anyway, the example here is "the Victoria and Albert Museum". Not in the Chicago & Boston league. Provincial Victoria and Albert Museum = bad example!
Herewith diqualified!

Christian Schlierkamp said...

Many staterun museums in Berlin don't allow sketches in watercolors, some restrict that only to wide, open water containers (in those places waterbrushes are ok).
To sketch with a pencil in a sketchbook is generally allowed.
The natural history museum even encourages drawing and organises tours and figure drawing classes for artists.

Wouter Tulp said...

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam organizes 'drawing Saturday ' every week. They even supply a sketchbook and a pencil.
When I recently contacted them to request permission to paint a copy of an old master, unfortunately they didn't allow it

Terry said...

From some things I've read in other net locales, this may be a result of a really crazy new law that recently passed in the UK...something about how even a *picture* of an object violates the object-maker's copyright? Which is insane because that would include things like catalogues and newspaper and magazine articles and books that include pictures of made objects. It has something to do with the government's extending copyright law longer - I think? It was related very unclearly (as you can tell) so I may be wrong. Someone else said this ban may be part of the contract the museum has with the owner of the traveling exhibition which seems more likely to me. In any case, it's discouraging.

Rich said...

...well, maybe sketches in watercolors, generously applied, may lead to some overspill;
...with the extra cost of the hired cleaning company for staterun museums.

Perhaps less of a problem with pencil sketchers...;;-)

Lester Yocum said...

For what it's worth, I have pencil and pen sketched in my sketchbook from the manikins and stuffed animals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in DC on several occasions and not had any negative response at all, even during busy times.

Smurfswacker said...

I really think this is all about speeding traffic in order to maximize ticket sales. Most of the big special exhibitions I've attended (e.g. the Silk Road figures and Pompeii) have scheduled tickets and once you're in, there's subtle pressure to hurry you through to make room for the next bunch. I've never been told directly to get a move on, but I'm willing to bet that if it were financially feasible they'd like to put visitors on a moving sidewalk.

I imagine an exhibit of underwear would intensify traffic congestion, as not every visitor would be there for purposes of artistic appreciation.

John Fleck said...

I have done a lot of sketching at The Art Institute of Chicago and they even have sketching classes one can take:
http://www.artic.edu/join-and-give/members/member-programs/member-art-classes-2015
I believe their policy is only dry media, which is understandable. I have seen students doing oil copies from works, so there is a way to get permission for that. An important fact is that the AIC was a school first - the museum part came along later.

Gavin said...

I wonder if it's possible to rip out some one minute gestures, before security moves you on!

If you wanted to be pedantic, it says no sketching, but it doesn't say you can't lay out a small tripod and tackle a full on reproduction.

Olly Lawson said...

I have to leave a comment because this hasn't been addressed. This isn't the result of any radically stringent privacy laws, or in fact anything new. V&A has been doing this for a few years now, and it is only in the single private exhibition room, which is a quite small one-room space used to show mostly fashion and photography events, not painting shows.
They do this I entirely presume because there is a huge number of fashion and art students in London and the room gets incredibly busy on popular shows, often with a queue for ticketholders waiting for people to leave the area before being allowed in.

The V&A itself is outside of this one of our largest and most 'sketch-friendly' museums, supplying chairs in many rooms and with very friendly staff. As far as I know, I've never seen any other gallery in the UK have a 'No Sketch' policy even on small painting shows, and yes, many of our galleries have late night sketching events or even allowing some to come in and make master studies in oils in the National Gallery.

hena said...

Maybe you can say your sketch is your version of note-taking?

My Pen Name said...

I have done master copies (oil and easel) at the Met, they used to allow individuals - you just had to apply and (rightfully) be screened) now I think paying academies have taken over those time slots and individuals can't do it anymore. That seems silly because master copying is something artists should do one on one with the master copy.

I think most of the sketch bans arise from legal or insurance requirements though some are do to traffic flow (years ago when the Met had the davinci drawing exhibit, for example)

I think they make the delineation between note-taking and sketching because a note taker will be there two minutes at best, and a sketch artist can be there a half hour or more (I always try to be courteous and take a stand that doesn't block everyone else's view)

If sketching is banned at an exhibit -it's a perfect time to practice memory drawing technique!

Wendy said...

Most art galleries and a lot of museums seem to be in a race to irrelevance these days. I think you summed it up nicely when you said that a lot of them "think of themselves as an extension of the gift shop".

dragonladych said...

Mind you, sketching underwear is not very appealing to me :)

I read that it was because they expect a lot of visitors and they want people to move along. I hate that type of exhibitions you feel like cattle. I recall the big Tut Ankh Amon exhibition in Basel. I managed to squeeze in a corner out of the queue to sketch my beloved Akhenaton, I would have been too frustrated to pass and not admire him for a while.

António Araújo said...

Two almost simultaneous and equally absurd experiences in Brussels:

-At the door of the beaux-arts museum an employee informs me that I cannot sketch the works because "that would be like stealing, you see". The absurdity of the thing is only mitigated by the fact that I did not confirm the prohibition with other staff (nor was there a sign that I could see) and the employee seemed to me to be either a bit sick or a bit high. I did not confirm it because I was discreetly "stealing" the works with my sketchbook. :)

-At the Bozar museum the next day, at the exhibition of Rembrandt prints, someone had this wonderful idea: although photography was not allowed, the visitors were encouraged to take a tablet from the museum desk to use as audioguide. Now, come the funny part, the way to activate the guide for each picture was to take a photo of said picture with the tablet! Now imagine each and every print hogged for minutes on end as each visitor tried his best - with a bad tablet camera, inadequate light and questionable photographic abilities - to take a photo that the table could actually identify! Of course they failed many times and all you could see was people crowding the prints without even looking at them, fumbling in the dark, their tablets glowing like drunken fireflies. All because someone thought it would be a delightfuly high-tech way of doing the same that could trivially be done by a numbered sign by the side of each print. Or, the gods forbid, a piece of written text. All of this, ironically, were photography was forbidden, since it could be such a nuisance to others (or because it's like stealing, I forget which).

James Gurney said...

Just checking in and reading through ALL of these amazing comments. Good to see that some museums have a progressive pro-artist policy on this, but I'm amazed at some of the experiences that other people have experienced. Antonio, your experience in Brussels is beyond strange!

António Araújo said...

It was! I've been in both museums maybe half a dozen times in the last year and this had never happened - but Brussels was always a bit of a curious place, and even "curiouser" in the last few weeks, on account of the bombings and the security measures. I'm ready to put the whole thing down to trauma...

Jules Pew said...

I think I bombed the comments yesterday. The paid for exhibitions are crowded and actually not that nice an experience, certainly hardly any room for sketching in comfort, but I see no reason for a ban as long as sketchers are courteous, which they normally are.

Unknown said...

It seems the article in question is sensationalist and misleading: http://makingamark.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/no-sketching-allowed-really.html?m=1

My Pen Name said...

Let's remember that many art museums began as extensions of art academies. Too many art museums these days think of themselves as extensions of the gift shop
Funny you say that James, I had an old map of the AMNH (from the early 90s) and a recent one. in the early 90s one there was one dinky gift shop by northwest coast indians. It sold a few postcards and some cheap plastic toys.

Anyone who visits the AMNH now knows that it's practically become a shopping mall- there is a THREE STORY gift shop, a gift shop or cafe on every floor and the disney technique of having to walk through the gift shop upon exit or entry to some sections of the dinosaur hall. Imagine trying to shepherd your five year old through that!

I have a particular bone (forgive the bad pun) to pick with the AMNH because it was largely funded with public money (land grants, I think) and its charter is education - not entertainment.

I have to guiltily admit though :) that many museums do great jobs with gift shops and have a lot of thought provoking material and I am probably not the only one who has sometimes spent more time in a gift shop than the exhibit!

Unfortunately the 'popular' trend in the museum 'industry' is to abandon the idea of the cathedral of culture and adapt a mass entertainment mentality.

I see this with childish groups like 'museum hacks' adults who go running through museums on 'treasure hunts' like five year olds.

David J Teter said...

Some have gotten off point here. This ban applies to special exhibits not the entire museum. And I have to agree with the ban unfortunately. Special exhibits are in a limited space or gallery of the museum and always has crowds above normal capacity and those of us attending have paid a price of admission above normal museum membership.
I saw the Tim Burton and a King Tut show at LACMA and they were so popular that they had to release people in groups every fifteen minutes. It was so hard to get tickets for the Tim Burton that we actually went at 4:00 in the morning to see it, one of the only times available! It ran 24 hours a day for the whole show but was well worth it.
It was surreal to go to a museum at 4:00 in the morning and perfect for Burtons work. : )

Some people from groups ahead of ours stayed at certain pieces longer than they should have which made it almost impossible for our group to get a look. Too many were trying to take selfies (selfish) a few trying to sketch. ALL of them were in the way considering the crowd. I had to skip a couple of the pieces on display because of it and wasn't happy since I too paid the price of admission for the exhibit.
Everybody wants to see it. Special exhibits are not the place for sketching, lingering or taking photos. It ruins it for everyone.
There is plenty to see, sketch and take photos of in museums beyond special exhibits. You would never run out of things to sketch if you went everyday.
It is about simple respect, civility and courtesy for all.
I would skip these kinds of exhibits altogether if I could but sometimes that is the only chance to see an artists work.

This is not unlike James post about Plein Air Painting in St. Augustine FL a while back. You can't block sidewalks, it is unfair to the shop owners.
http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2016/01/plein-air-painting-is-illegal-in-st.html

Unfortunately there are always a few, enough, that do not respect everybodiess right to see so we then have to put rules in place to govern all our behavior.
Welcome to society.

Helder! said...

I have had this happen to me! I'm so glad you posted about this. Last year I had gone to an exhibit of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's early work in Detroit (I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts). I was waiting in a rather long line for the exhibit to open, so I did what I normally do when I wait for things, and pulled my little sketchbook out and started to doodle. A woman behind me was knitting as she waited. We still had about 10 minutes before the exhibit opened up.

Above our heads one of the staff had called out the general rules and I was half paying attention, "no photography...etc etc. NO SKETCHING". I stopped and looked up, then sheepishly put my book away. The woman behind me thought it was strange as well. "What doing think they'll ban next," she joked, "knitting socks?"

Carlos said...

Hi James. I'm on vacation in Florence and this morning something unexpected made me think of this post. After seeing Michelangelo's David in person, I took my sketching pad and a really small set of watercolors and headed to Piazza della Signoria where there's a replica of the same statue. There are also some replicas of other famous statues. Among them, two beautiful Medici lions on the side of a staircase. This is a semi-public place I guess, since it's not a gallery and it's on the street where everyone can stop by for free and take a picture. I took a seat by the stairs and started sketching one of the lions with a Watercolor pencil, before starting the actual Watercolor. Once I finished my sketch, and as I was prepping my watercolors, a man who worked for the city, approached me and told me that I was aloud to sketch there as long as I used pencils; oils and watercolors however were forbidden. I asked why, but he said he didn't know; it was just some sort of law they have (I do not speak Italian). Anyway, he apologized, but I had to put my watercolors away and since I was already there I completed the drawing on pencil. To add to the strange situation, some people who also sat on the stairs where asked to move because sitting on those stairs was also forbidden. Only I could stay, because I was the only one who was "working". I can understand and even encourage caring for public places, particularly in a city so magnificent as Florence. But I also think that forbidding artists to paint in public places is overreacting. Cheers.

James Gurney said...

Carlos, that does sound strange and unfair, especially since you were only using pencil and watercolor, and you were studying a replica outdoors in a place so hallowed with artistic tradition. I can only imagine that such rules are blanket prohibitions that grew out of bad experiences that the maintenance people had to deal with. It should be a reminder to painters, especially in oil, which tends to be messy, to be very careful not to drop palettes or paint rags or to use noxious solvents, so as not to ruin it for others.

Robert Foster said...

At the Fogg Museum in Boston, MA (part of the Harvard Museums) I was asked not to take photos in one particular gallery only. I could understand that for some reason no photos there. So then I took out a gel pen and small sketchbook and started drawing the print I was interested in. That turned out to be even worse as I was stopped again after I had done a bit of sketching. It turns out that PEN is not allowed anywhere in the museum as they have had situations where the ink splattered, or something like that. So I completed the sketch with my mechanical pencil, but it wasn't as effective since it was an engraving that I was trying to draw inspiration from. I'm assuming if no pen is allowed then no painting or watercolor is allowed but I did not verify any further.

James Gurney said...

Yeah, that's frustrating. I guess they need to have absolute rules, especially in the study areas where the art is not protected by glass. All it takes is one moment of carelessness or accident to make the rules tighter for everyone else. The irony is that most of the actual damage to artwork (conservators tell me) is from red wine splashed from patrons at black tie events!

Linda Navroth said...

They don't allow photography in special exhibits either. I think they just want to sell more exhibit catalogs!