UK art historians call for abolition of image fees

November 6 2017

Image of UK art historians call for abolition of image fees

Picture: Times

The Times today published a letter from a group of Britain's leading art historian - including Professors Martin Kemp, David Solkin and Simon Schama, the editors of The Burlington Magazine, the British Art Journal and Art History, as well as Pontus Rosen of the Association for Art History - calling for the UK's national museums to abolish image fees for out of copyright paintings, prints and drawings. The Times also ran a long story on the letter too, here. Here's the text of the letter and the list of signatories:

Dear Sir,

The fees charged by the UK’s national museums to reproduce images of historic paintings, prints and drawings are unjustified, and should be abolished. Such fees inhibit the dissemination of knowledge that is the very purpose of public museums and galleries. Fees charged for academic use pose a serious threat to art history: a single lecture can cost hundreds of pounds; a book, thousands.

Fees are also charged despite the fact that the artworks in question are not only publicly owned, but out of copyright (that is, made by artists who died more than 70 years ago). Museums claim they create a new copyright when making a faithful reproduction of a 2D artwork by photography or scanning, but it is doubtful that the law supports this. Museums' rules for using images are confusing and inconsistent, and do not raise meaningful funds once costs are taken into account. We urge the UK's national museums to follow the example of a growing number of international museums (such as Holland’s Rijksmuseum) and provide open access to images of publicly owned, out of copyright paintings, prints, and drawings so that they are free for the public to reproduce.

Yours sincerely, (in alphabetical order)

  • Hugh Belsey MBE, Senior Research Fellow, Paul Mellon Centre 
  • Diana Dethloff FSA, University College London 
  • Dr Rhoda Eitel-Porter, Editor, Print Quarterly
  • Professor Anthony Geraghty, University of York 
  • Sir Nicholas Goodison FBA, FSA 
  • Antony Griffiths FBA, Chairman, The Walpole Society
  • Dr Bendor Grosvenor
  • Michael Hall FSA, Editor, The Burlington Magazine 
  • James Holloway CBE, former Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 
  • Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times 
  • Professor Martin Kemp FBA, FRSE, University of Oxford 
  • Alex Kidson, independent art historian
  • Michael Liversidge FSA, FRSA, Emeritus Dean, Faculty of Arts, Bristol University 
  • Dr Matt Lodder, University of Essex 
  • Dr Thomas Marks, Editor, Apollo
  • Dr Alexander Marr, FSA, FRHistS, University of Cambridge 
  • Dr Dorothy Price FSA, University of Bristol, Editor, Art History 
  • Dr Janina Ramirez, University of Oxford 
  • Dr Jacqueline Riding, author and independent art historian
  • Dr Malcolm Rogers CBE FSA, Director Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
  • Pontus Rosén, CEO, Association for Art History 
  • Professor Simon Schama CBE FRSL, Columbia University 
  • Dr Katherine Schofield, King’s College London 
  • Dr Robin Simon FSA, Editor, The British Art Journal 
  • Professor David Solkin FBA, Courtauld Institute of Art 
  • Dr Richard Stephens FSA
  • Dr Duncan Thomson, former Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery
  • Professor Michael White, Head of History of Art, University of York

The letter was organised by myself and Dr Richard Stephens; we are very grateful to all those who signed. I've no doubt we could have got many more signatories. I hope that the list of names here gives museums serious pause for thought on this vitally important issue. 

In The Times, Tate gave a very defensive, if interesting response:

The Tate said that it allows free non-commercial use of low-resolution images, and offers subsidised rates for high-resolution images for non- commercial use. “There are significant costs to Tate for creating authoritative images of works in the collection, both in the preparation of artwork to be photographed and in post-production of the photograph,” a spokeswoman said. “We recover some of these costs through our licensing activities but not all.”

Which is interesting, because normally institutions say they have to charge fees to raise revenue. So here it seems Tate are saying that their licensing operation actually costs them money. I'd love to know how many staff they employ to check which author has requested which print run, and whether the image will be a 1/4 page or a half page and so on. A Freedom of Information request will hopefully flush this out. Also, Tate's response would appear to suggest that they are passing all their photography costs onto the licensing operation, when of course having a decent photograph of an object is one of the basic requirements of collection care. Many departments within a museum will make use of images; conservation, marketing, online. But Tate seems not to share the cost of photography equally around the museum. Finally, you don't have to look far to discover that the vast majority of Tate's online images were paid for long ago - by a grant of public money. 

But - watch this space. Tate are reviewing their image licensing policy in January 2018. We have just a couple of months to keep the pressure up, and achieve something really vital to the cause of art history.

Update - the British Museum were also quoted in The Times saying that providing photos was an expensive business. To which an informed source replies:

I thought it was a bit rich for the British Museum to state that the cost of making the images was so high since a huge number of these (notably their British print collection) was paid for with a grant of £500,000 from the Paul Mellon Centre awarded back in 2011.

Update II - via Twitter, an instance of the craziness of the current situation, faced by a PhD student at Cambridge:

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