Debate | Should Visitors be Allowed to Photograph Artwork in Galleries, Museums and Art Shows?

This weekend I received the following email from a reader, and artist and studio owner:

Hi Jason,

Love your Red dot blog!

Here’s a topic that I would love to see addressed:

Ours seems to be the age of phone cameras, selfies, and instant gratification, and I wondered how artists/exhibitors/galleries should handle this. We have a studio/gallery that has some public hours. We do have a sign posted that photographs of the art are not allowed because of copyright issues. Yet I am often confronted with visitors sneaking photos of everything they like, or just expecting that they can, and feeling indignant when they can’t. Also students come in working on projects, needing the photo of the art for their essay. Just this afternoon I allowed a high schooler to take photos of two of my entertainment scenes related to his jazz playing…but then I was left wondering just what his project was, and if my art is just going to be part of some visual mash-up.

I am happy to email medium files of art to interested collectors, but that is a time-consuming follow-up process. And many visitors just want it now, at their own convenience, and don’t even want the formality of giving an email address to get an image.

I also notice that in public spaces such as libraries, museums, people expect to snap away. What if you are a contemporary artist in a museum show – do you have to resign yourself to allowing everyone take high resolution photos of your art? They don’t have enough staff to police anyway in most smaller museums.

How does Xanadu handle this? Other exhibitors in arts festivals etc?

I’m in a quandary because photos from receptions, with people with the art, do seem to be helpful for publicity, but then where do you draw the line? Hard to say you can photograph the people, but not the art straight on. How do we balance access, the public’s enthusiasm and involvement with protecting our art from being used without recompense?

Love to hear your and Barney’s thoughts,



My response

Thank you for the email Karen. I’ve taken the approach that people in my gallery taking photos are helping me market the gallery, primarily to themselves, but sometimes to others through social media. I don’t really see this as a copyright issue. Even though smartphone cameras are hi-res, the likelihood that someone is going to get an image that would be high enough quality for reproductions without using a tripod and professional lighting is pretty low. It’s also likely that only a very, very small percentage of people visiting your gallery would even have the desire to violate your copyright. So what you are doing by having a strict no photography policy is irritating the vast majority of visitors to your gallery in order to protect yourself from a very small risk. Though only you can make the calculation, I’ve decided it’s just not worth the cost in terms of policing a policy like this, especially when you will end up being one of only a very small number of venues to do so.

We try to use photography in the gallery as a sales opportunity. When someone starts taking photos or asks if they can, we are very accommodating, even encouraging. We also offer to email them a photo of the piece they are interested in, letting them know that the email will include the size, price and artist name.

I would encourage you to rethink the policy and turn it from a negative into a positive.

Let me know if there is some other consideration that I’m not seeing.


What Do You Think?

So what do you think – should people be allowed to take photos of art in galleries or other venues? Have you ever had an image misappropriated by a viewer? How do you handle this issue when showing your work?

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