Museum image fees (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Image of Museum image fees (ctd.)

Picture: AIC

Good news; the Art Institute of Chicago has announced that it is making over 44,000 images of artworks from its collection 'open access'. That  means you can use them for free in any way you want. 

Critics of open access working in UK museums say that institutions like the AIC can afford to do this, because they charge for entry. UK museums, so the argument goes, cannot afford to give away their images for free, because they have to support free entry. But not all open access museums charge for entry; the Nationalmuseum in Sweden, which makes thousands of its images open access, has now introduced free entry. So it is in fact possible to have both free physical entry, and free digital entry.

We can get a glimpse into the UK's nationally funded museums' mindset through an interesting document recently made available through a Freedom of Information request from my colleague Richard Stephens. In advance of the House of Lords debate on image fees last month, only one UK museum made a submission to the government in favour of selling images; the V&A. Predictably, they relied on the point that many open access museums also charge for entry. And they cited Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum as their main example. You can read the submission here (it's at the end of a large number of documents released as part of the same FoI request).

But let's look at the numbers first. Is it as simple as saying the V&A is worse off than the Rijksmuseum, and thus cannot afford to give its images away for free? No. The V&A's total government subsidy last year was £40.2m (you can read the accounts here). A large part of that subsidy is given especially to subsidise free entry. It represents 42% of the V&A's total income of £95.3m. The Rijksmuseum, which charges for entry, receives a significantly smaller government subsidy, of €15.5m (in 2017, accounts available here). This represents only 26% of its total income of €58m. UK museums do well from public subsidy by international standards. We need not believe the V&A's insistence that it needs to sell images in order to support free entry. 

Finally, the V&A in its submission defending their right to sell images made a crucial point in favour of open access. They said:

Where British museums must work hard to generate revenue from assets (such as the IP rights in their images) to supplement grant-in-aid, the Rijksmuseum is primarily concerned with driving visitor numbers through its doors and thus raising ticket revenue. The Rijksmuseum makes all its images available to download for free because it knows that the more people that it enables to see* its images, the more people will be likely to pay €17.50 for entry to the museum. 

In other words, the V&A agrees that open access increases visitor numbers; the more people see images of a collection, the more people want to go and visit that collection. This is an important concession. But you might think from reading their statement that the V&A does not want to increase visitor numbers. Instead, they appear to be more interested in maintaining their ability to use their public collection as a commercial entity.

*their italics. 

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