Museum image fees (ctd.)

September 12 2018

Video: Parliament.tv

There was a debate in the House of Lords today about museum image fees. It's the first time the issue has been raised in Parliament. The debate was called by Lord Freyberg, a crossbench peer who is in favour of museums being more generous with their images, especially for educational purposes. His speech opens the debate, and can be seen in the video above, which is the full hour of the debate. The text will be made available in Hansard by tomorrow. 

Lord Freyberg set out a strong case for greater open access in the UK's national museums. I was very pleased to see that he was strongly supported by the Labour spokesman on Culture in the Lords, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. UK politics is in a state of some disarray at the moment, but it's heartening to know that the Labour front bench are minded to support Open Access. You never know when another party might take power.

Opposing Lord Freyberg's points was the former army chief, Lord Dannatt, who is now chair of the Royal Armouries, a museum which says it needs the income from image fees. Lord Dannatt made much of the idea that museums should share in the commercial success of those who use museum images, but didn't really consider the educational or academic side of the equation. Of course, the Armouries is slightly outside of the image fee debate we've been having so far, since it has few paintings, and images of its other (3D) objects are subject to different copyright laws.

There was a curious speech from the Conservative Viscount Eccles, who wished those advocating Open Access ('a rather vague idea') would go away, saying that he "really hoped that not much more is heard of a small storm in an academic teacup". He is an adviser to the British Library. 

We were also lucky to have a contribution from the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Addington. He astutely came to the heart of the matter; the way in which museums arbitrarily and rather meanly determine what is and is not an 'academic' publication, and thus qualifies for a free image. In his speech, Lord Freyberg pointed to the way in which the British Museum defines 'anything which is itself charged for' as a 'commercial' publication, even if it is an obviously academic publication with a print run of just 100 copies. Lord Addington suggested that the museums need to come together and agree a common position on what constitutes an 'academic' publication. And of course he is right.

Viscount Younger of Leckie responded to the debate on behalf of the government. His main point was that the charging of image fees was not a matter on which government could interfere. National museums got their funding from government on the basis that they made their collections available to the public in person, and so everything else was effectively a matter for them. On one level he is right; national museums are so-called 'arms length' bodies, and act free of government interference. But then the government-commissioned Mendoza Review made a great deal about collections being made available digitally, and 'not just physically'. Freeing up image restrictions is a key part of this, because in order to help sell high res images, museums generally only make lower resolution images available online for people to see (Tate being the worst offender). Lord Younger also stressed how expensive producing photographs was, although of course museums photograph objects as part of their core mission, not just to provide images for scholars. In many cases these costs have been borne by museums long ago, often funded by charities and the National Lottery. 

Nonetheless, the really crucial thing from our (that is, advocates of open access, which I'm sure all you AHNers are) point of view is that the government did not come out against Open Access, and said that it would encourage museums to convene a 'round table' meeting on this issue. This is an important development I think. Not least because Lord Younger seemed sympathetic to an intervention made by Lord Addington that it was high time museums were much clearer, and more generous, in how they define 'academic' publications. 

So I'm very pleased with the day's events. First, it was good to get the issues debated in Parliament, and to find other peers and parties supporting Open Access. Second, I think the points made by speakers opposed to Open Access were fairly easily rebutted. Third, we have a potential route towards securing something we've long been aiming for; a common and much more generous allowance of free images to academic and educational publications. If we can do that, we'll have won half the battle. Change is coming. No wonder the fellow from Bridgeman Images who attended the debate looked a bit worried. 

The Hirst sale 'bloodbath'

September 12 2018

Image of The Hirst sale 'bloodbath'

Picture: Artnet News

There's an interesting article from Tim Schneider on Artnet News about the Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby's in 2008. Schneider has tracked down the subsequent sale history of 19 works that featured in the sale, and it turns out they've mostly lost money. Says Schneider, eloquently:

Instead of a formaldehyde tank, the best fluid measure here is a bloodbath. After enticing buyers to spend $8.1 million at “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” the same 19 works only managed to bring in about $5.2 million after they each mounted the auction block a second time—a collective loss of nearly $3 million.

More here

The rush to Wikipedia

September 12 2018

Image of The rush to Wikipedia

Picture: National Gallery of Scotland

It's been pointed out to me that the National Galleries of Scotland are also relying on Wikipedia for their artist biographies. At least with the NGS each artist gets a short paragraph of their own text, but it strikes me as another cheap way out of providing authoritative content.

The Gallery's own brief entry for George Jamesone (above) describes him as 'Scotland's first great native painter', which is true. But the Wikipedia biography hardly stands this claim up. A former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dr Duncan Thomson, actually wrote the book on Jamesone; it's a shame that the current Gallery website doesn't capitalise on this expertise. 

Some Wikipedia fans keep saying; why don't you go and make the Wikipedia entries better? First, it's not my job. And second, those people have clearly never had to do battle with the various (always anonymous) self-proclaimed experts who lurk in Wikipedia's depths. I'm afraid it's very rarely worth the bother. 

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

September 11 2018

Image of 'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My latest Diary piece for The Art Newspaper is now online

Update - Someone has pointed out to me all the negative connotations of the phrase 'committed', in relation to Minton's suicide. Apologies; I used it without thinking, and won't again.

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

September 11 2018

Image of Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

Regular readers will know that while I was delighted to see the National Gallery acquire a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, and have admired the way in which they have made the conservation of the picture so public, I was puzzled by the manner in which they bought the picture, and the price they paid. The picture came up for auction in Paris on 19th December 2017 with an estimate of €300,000-€400,000, and sold for €2.3m. The picture was bought by dealers, and the National Gallery acquired it soone afterwards for £3.6m, a price increase of £1.6m from the auction. The self-portrait is close in composition and date to another example that came up for sale recently at Christie’s in New York with an estimate of $3m-$5m - but didn’t sell - and which was subsequently acquired after the auction by the Wadsworth Atheneum.

We are always hearing how hard up UK museums are. So why pay the big mark up? In a statement to AHN, the National Gallery said they were “not given notice of the painting's appearance at auction in Paris, so we were only able to consider its acquisition once it had been purchased there by dealers.” In an earlier post, I set out that the National Gallery, had they been monitoring the auction scene and art history blogs, had fully a month to consider the acquisition before the sale, and that the picture was not subject to any French export bar. The fact that they seem to have missed the picture’s sale in Paris is all the more surprising given the emphasis they placed, after the acquisition, on how securing paintings by female artists has been a priority, and that the acquisition of the Self-Portrait was a realisation of a ‘long held dream’. We are also often told that major museums need time to buy artworks at auction, because the fundraising is so difficult. And yet, in this case, the great majority of the National Gallery’s funding to buy the picture came from what are effectively its own reserves. I’m not saying the National Gallery would have been able to buy the picture for less in France. But I do think it’s right to ask whether they have acted in the most efficient manner. You may say; ‘they have the picture, and that’s all that matters’. But in an age of declining attendances and more difficult fundraising, it’s vital that publicly owned and funded museums are able to demonstrate that they are doing everything they can to preserve public trust, and money. A fraction of that £1.6m would pay for a dedicated staff member to monitor all auction sales, and help keep the Gallery alert for potential acquisitions in the future. 

To try and find out more about why the National Gallery felt it appropriate to pay £1.6m more for a painting only months after it was sold, I asked the Gallery for any correspondence relevant to deciding on the acquisition under the Freedom of Information Act. In the UK, all public authorities are expected to be transparent and open in how they operate, and the Act allows the public a ‘right of access’ to information held by those bodies, at any time. The Act has been in effect since 2000. Under the Act, public bodies are allowed to invoke a range of exemptions to withhold information, if they think, for example, that things like security arrangements or personal information should not be made public. For some years, I used to be a government adviser on public archives, and so am quite familiar with how the Act works, or at least how it should work.

Yesterday, I received the National Gallery’s response to my request. It came in form of a PDF, many pages long, most of which looks like the above photo. There are a great deal of redactions, and not much of any real use remains to be seen. There's some information about arranging IR and X-ray photos when the picture came in, a little about general fundraising, but that’s about it. I have been unable to find out when the National Gallery first became aware of the painting, how they went about valuing it, the extent to which they negotiated the price down, if they did, and so on. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find out much. But I think the reasons for the National Gallery withholding so much information are what’s really interesting here. And so, below, I will quote from,and comment on, their reasoning.

First, a number of emails were exempted for security grounds, which is fine. It’s quite right that information about how valuable paintings enter the National Gallery is not released. But other exemptions used to withhold information are perhaps more ambiguous. Here’s their comment on documents specifically relating to the commercial element of the acquisition:

Section 43(2)

Release of some of the information would prejudice the commercial interests of the National Gallery. This information includes how we assess the merits of a painting considered for the national collection, how we seek funding for acquisitions, and how we negotiate with vendors. I have therefore concluded that a section 43(2) exemption is engaged. Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act states that “information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it)”. The National Gallery believes that disclosure of this information would prejudice our own commercial interests. In reaching this decision, particular consideration has been given to the likelihood of the National Gallery engaging in similar activities in the future. The Gallery is also mindful of the need to build relationships of trust with vendors and funders. Whilst we must not hide from public scrutiny, our ability to deal advantageously and in the public interest with vendors and funders would be damaged by the release of information.

Critics of the purchase price would probably point out that in this case, they have not dealt advantageously in the public interest.

More substantively, the Gallery said that releasing many of the emails would have a detrimental impact on staff and their ability to operate:

As a public authority we recognise our duty to balance the need for openness with the requirement to keep information private where it is in the public interest to do so. Having considered your request, we believe that a section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) exemption is engaged. Section 36 states that information is exempt information if “disclosure of the information under [the] Act would, or would be likely to, inhibit – (i) the free and frank provision of advice or (ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”.

The information which has been withheld relates to the provision of advice and discussion, for the purposes of deliberation and the drafting of documentation, regarding the decision to acquire the painting, undertake due diligence, produce legal agreements and other documentation, provide a valuation of the painting, seek and discuss expert third-party advice, seek external funding for the acquisition, consider future conservation treatment and outreach activities.

Much of this is understandable. But I think we can see just how broad the National Gallery’s refusal to disclose information is, when they mention things like conservation treatment. I can’t immediately see why the conservation treatment on a publicly owned painting needs to be kept secret, especially when the Gallery is usually commendably open about such things. 

They go on:

The issue referred to is still ‘live’ in so far as the acquisition of the painting continues to be of interest to third party individuals. […]

As this is a live issue, there remains the need for the Gallery’s staff to have a ‘safe space’ in which to exchange views and opinions.

The issue is also live in so far as the Gallery will engage in future activities of a very similar nature as it continues to acquire paintings and seek funding.

Connoisseurship – as used to judge a painting – is subjective and requires careful thought and discussion. It is important to maintain a safe-space for such deliberations to take place.

This last point is interesting. Presumably, since the painting is now in the National Gallery’s collection, Gallery staff thought it was a good painting. Some might see it as surprising that discussions about the quality and authorship of a painting need to be kept secret - especially since the Act allows the redaction of names from documents, but not the actual text. Therefore, it would be possible to see correspondence that ‘X’ thought this painting was or was not by Gentileschi, and so on. The argument might be different if a picture from another gallery or owner was under discussion, because then there would be other reasons to withhold that information. But this is the National Gallery discussing the public’s painting - are we not able to know what they think?  

The National Gallery’s email to me went on to further expand on this point, however, and deployed a couple of what I think are revealing phrases:

We believe that disclosure of this information would inhibit the frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. It is important that the Gallery’s officers are able to carry out their work free from external interference in order to make the best possible decisions on complex subjects such as this. In order for a section 36 exemption to be engaged, a qualified person must give their reasonable opinion that that is the case. I can confirm that the National Gallery’s qualified person, the Director, has given their opinion that the exemption is engaged.

As a public authority we have a duty to balance the need for openness with considerations of the public interest in maintaining this exemption. However, we do not believe that it is in the public interest to inhibit the provision of advice or the exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. We have concluded that releasing the information requested would have a ‘chilling effect’ on members of Gallery staff, thus hindering their work and putting at risk the decision making process. We therefore consider that the public interest is better served by the use of the exemption detailed above to prevent the release of this information. In reaching this decision I have also been mindful of the fact that the outcomes of the deliberations have either been released or published, for example the purchase price and sources of funding. In this way, the Gallery has sought to ensure openness in relation to the acquisition.

This last sentence suggests we are supposed to applaud the Gallery for making public the £3.6m figure in the first place. But while I do agree with the general thrust of the statement above - that Gallery staff should feel at liberty to give free and frank advice to their colleagues - we do need to remember above all that this is a public institution. It receives substantial public funding. The Gallery's artworks belong to the public, as does its site. It is our collection. The staff work for us. They are accountable to us. They know this when they take the job. If, when contemplating a course of action they think, 'this would look bad if it ever became public', then it's probably not a good idea to do it. Characterising legitimate public interest in how the Gallery operates as ‘external interference’ is, I think, quite shocking. Public scrutiny is not ‘interference’. It’s the only way we can be sure that public institutions are acting in our interest. Going so far as to claim such scrutiny will have a 'chilling effect' on Gallery staff reveals, I think, what they think of that scrutiny. 

And here we get to the heart of the matter. There is a growing disconnect between some of our national museums and the public they serve. I’ve described before what I call the 'Gollum syndrome' when it comes to museums; it’s their ‘precious’. Their collection. Their museum. Their money.

No. It’s ours. Too often, museum management and trustees treat their audiences with contempt, whether it’s closing entire galleries at a whim for private events, or junking expert written text for links to Wikipedia, or arbitrarily banning photography, or even (yes) charging schools and academics excessive fees to use images by falsely claiming they own the copyright. But taking the public’s support for granted is a dangerous way to operate. Because one day, it could vanish.

As ever, I'd be glad to hear your views. I have made a donation to the National Gallery to cover the costs of complying with my FoI request.

Update - a reader writes:

You wrote on 11th Sept - 'Too often, museum management and trustees treat their audiences with contempt...As ever, I'd be glad to hear your views.' Writing as a former curator/manager/director of galleries and museums, I’d agree – indeed they all too often do. And there’s one thing which gives away their attitude - it’s when they refer to the museum/gallery collection as ‘my collection’, e.g. ‘in my collection there’s a such-and-such item’, or ‘I’m working on a catalogue of my collection’ – that little word ‘my’ says it every time. 

'Heni Talks' (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Video: Heni Talks

Here's another excellent 'Heni Art Talks' film, on the National Portrait Gallery's portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare of Bath. The short film is presented by Gus Casely-Hayford.

'Courtauld Impressionists at the National Gallery'

September 10 2018

Video: National Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment, and a selection of their Impressionist paintings are going on display at the National Gallery from 17th September. More here

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Video: National Gallery

Fascinating film from the National Gallery about taking the old lining of the back of their newly acquired Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait. 

Garden party at the Frick

September 10 2018

Video: Frick

A glimpse into the mwah mwah world of US fundraising.

Restitution (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of Restitution (ctd.)

Picture: 16th century brass plaque depicting the Oba of Benin, from the British Museum, via FT.com

There's an interesting article by Gareth Harris in the FT looking at the issue of restitution, following President Macron's pledge to return items taken to France from Africa during the colonial era. It was one thing to make the pledge, says Harris, but quite another to persuade notoriously conservative French institutions to actually do something about it:

The issue of restitution, which increasingly dogs western museums, has become an even hotter topic since President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged to repatriate African artefacts. His declaration in Burkina Faso last November that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums” reignited the debate around colonial artefacts.

Macron has since asked two independent experts, the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, to draw up a set of recommendations for repatriation; their report is due in November. But a question mark hangs over how the policy will be implemented.

The French culture ministry is typically hostile to any changes on matters of restitution. “In 2010, the French parliament voted to set up a scientific commission to study proposals for repatriation, but the ministry failed to act,” the journalist Vincent Noce reported earlier this year, explaining that curators at French museums fiercely defend the principle of inalienability.

One presumes that Macron will be slightly less forthcoming about any art taken by Napoleon from various European countries, and now in the Louvre.

Of course, in Britain we face many of the same issues, only they're always supercharged by the Elgin Marbles. Recently, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said he thought they should be returned to Athens. I doubt the Marbles will ever leave Bloomsbury. But Harris reports that the British Museum is slowly inching towards doing something about other items taken in controversial circumstances, such as the Benin Bronzes:

At the British Museum, the wheels are turning. A governmental delegation from Nigeria attended a meeting in March with members of the museum’s Africa section and representatives of other European museums that have Benin collections. “At that meeting, a declaration was proposed that outlined an intention to work towards a permanent, but rotating, exhibition [in Nigeria] of loaned objects from the Kingdom of Benin,” a museum spokeswoman says.

The problem for the British Museum is that restitution is really the thin end of the wedge; once you start returning objects that really shouldn't have been taken from their country of origin in the first place, you'll soon end up with a rather empty museum. 

I used to be a diehard 'keep the Elgin Marbles in the BM' sort of a person. But now I'm more ambivalent about it. In the case of the Benin Bronzes, taken from Nigeria in the most brutal circumstances, I think the case to return them is increasingly unanswerable. I also think the old argument that a place like the British Museum allowed you to see and study so many aspects of the world's culture in one place is actually less relevant in the age of cheap travel, and of course, the internet.

Often, however, the issue of restitution is seen in binary terms; either you believe objects should always stay where they are now, or you believe they should go back to whence they came. If it was up to me, I'd try to work out some kind of protocol to allow us to reach a more reason-based decision. Something like:

  1. What were the circumstances of the object's removal from its country of origin? (If items were sold, or traded, then that might be less evidence in favour of return than if they were stolen by individuals, or looted by an invading power).
  2. How long ago did the removal take place? (There can be no hard and fast rule here, but clearly something looted within the last hundred years has a stronger claim for restitution than something taken in the 16th Century).
  3. If an object were to be returned, is there an appropriate environment in which to display it to the public? (That is, is there a museum with the necessary facilities to house the object, and secure its long term survival?)
  4. Would the object be better appreciated and understood in its original setting? (This follows on from point three - if, say, a statue was taken from a palace that has since been destroyed, then there may be less sense in sending it back to its country of origin. But if that palace was still extant, with a sad gap in the niche in which the statue once stood, then the case is much stronger).

 

There you go. We can call it the AHN Protocol. 

Image fees (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of Image fees (ctd.)

Picture: NationalMuseum via Wikipedia, Joseph Ducreux, Portrait of the Artist's Mother.

Another major museum has put its images into the public domain; the National Museum of Sweden has made 6,000  high resolution images of historic artworks available via Wikipedia (e.g., here). The most important thing, from the point of view of those campaigning to abolish museum image fees here in the UK, is the National Museum's unequivocal statement that there is no copyright in its photos of historic artworks:

Images in the Public Domain belong to our shared cultural heritage and you are free to use them however you like. The Nationalmuseum has dedicated these images to the Public Domain as they have been made exclusively by digitally reproducing works of art that are no longer protected by copyright. Even though this sometimes requires substantial resources and time, the Nationalmuseum does not consider that a new copyright emerges for the reproduction.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the question of image fees will be debated in Parliament for the first time later this week. Lord Freyberg has secured a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday 12th September at 3.45; "Encouraging national museums and galleries to balance public access and commercial reuse of digital content".

Hopefully the debate will be a good chance to make the case for increased open access in UK museums. At the very least, it will an opportunity to put the arguments to government, and to see what they say. That said, I'd be surprised if the government said in response anything other than; 'not for us to get involved'. In advance of the debate, word has gone out from museum image departments to try and get supporters to take part. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Tintoretto 500

September 10 2018

Image of Tintoretto 500

Picture: via FT.com

To mark the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto's birth, Venice has a number of exhibitions devoted to the great man. The FT's Jackie Wullschlager has been to check out what's on:

Marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the unmissable Tintoretto retrospective that opened this weekend at Palazzo Ducale (the mature work) and Gallerie dell’Accademia (The Young Tintoretto) invites all this and more. The first exhibitions here since 1937, they are centrepiece of a feast to be savoured over days, for they only fully make sense in the wider context of the city’s permanently installed painting cycles and altarpieces, all proclaiming the dash and verve — “tutto spirito e tutto prontezza” according to suspicious, awed contemporaries — of this native Venetian through half a century.

More here.

Mona Lisa theory no. 769

September 10 2018

Video: via You Tube

A doctor in the US says she had a thyroid condition, because of what he thinks are her bloated hands, thin eyebrows and high hairline. File under 'Phooey, Load of'. More here.

More 'botched restoration' in Spain?

September 10 2018

Image of More 'botched restoration' in Spain?

Picture: BBC

It's not quite as bad as 'Monkey Jesus Lady', but in Spain, another over-enthusiastic church restoration job has attracted attention. In the village of El Ranadoiro (popn. 28), parishioner Maria Luisa Menendez decided to brighten up a wooden icon, but not everyone approved.

I think it looks great. If Jeff Koons had done it, they'd be selling replicas for millions. 

More here

'Fake or Fortune' Lego

September 10 2018

Image of 'Fake or Fortune' Lego

Picture: David Warner

Someone has made a Lego version of 'Fake or Fortune?', and it gives me great hair, and a fine jumper. More here

Guffwatch

September 10 2018

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Tate

Tate has opened a shop at the Bicester Village shopping centre near Oxford. But, this is no ordinary shop - it's where:

The worlds of art, technology, shopping and experience will come together at Bicester Village in an exciting new partnership with Tate.

The partnership combines virtual reality and film with bespoke digital printing and exclusive art-themed gifting in an innovative experiential pop-up.

A variety of well known artists will feature, including Amedeo Modigliani, whose studio will come to life. In another area, Tate’s award-winning short films will showcase a changing series of artists – kicking off with David Hockney in September, with more to follow...

Immerse yourself further in the experience at the pop-up’s shop and discover Tate’s famous collection, where you can browse high-quality prints of your favourite works, each custom-made to your choice. If you’re looking for a beautiful book or art-inspired gift, Tate’s exclusive retail range will have something to suit.

'The man who said museums should charge for entry' (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of 'The man who said museums should charge for entry' (ctd.)

Picture: HM Bateman

Here's a postscript to a story which first appeared long ago on AHN, in early 2011 (in fact, not long after AHN began): Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, has changed his mind on free museum entry in the UK. Back in 2011, when he was a Member of Parliament for the city of Stoke-on-Trent, he argued that giving large amounts of public funding to mainly London museums to support free entry was wrong, given the fact that so many other museums across the UK were struggling with funding cuts. This caused some outrage, because free museum entry has become a Holy Grail in the UK.

Back then, I thought he had a point, insofar as we spend so much to subsidise overseas visitors (about half the British Museum's visitors are from overseas), when no other country does the same. Now, however, he says he backs free entry wholeheartedly, but has argued for a tourist tax to help fund museums. It's a tricky balance to strike, and I still don't think we've made it work. More here.  

Incidentally, I forgot to note that a little while ago AHN made its 5,000th post. To those readers who have been here from the start, thanks!

Tate and Wikipedia

September 7 2018

Image of Tate and Wikipedia

Picture: Tate

Had you noticed that Tate's website now no longer features its own biographical entries for artists, but simply takes text from Wikipedia? The one on Van Dyck misspells his name, and tells us the highly important fact that the Van Dyck beard is named after him. This is typical of the sort of trivia you find on Wikipedia, but we might expect better from Tate. 

Of course, while Tate is only too happy to take text from Wikipedia, it absolutely won't allow any of its own images to be used on the site.

Update - after a few Tweets, this story seemed to take off, and was featured in The Art Newspaper, The Telegraph, and elsewhere. The fact that Tate was relying on Wikipedia sparked, at least on my Twitter feed, a near universal condemnation, which slightly took me by surprise. 

What people seemed to object to most was the fact that Tate is supposed to be the nation's leading gallery (and centre of expertise) for British art - but it evidently can't be bothered to provide authoritative information about the artist's who shaped British art. It tied in too with their dismissal of a number of expert curators over the last few years, and their refusal to publish a research-led catalogue for their collection. 

The story reflects, I'm afraid, Tate's current view of expertise, and 'authority', which a certain type of museum person can get very anxious about. For some, authority is to be ashamed of, or elitist. For these peopleit's better to have a 'democratic' source like Wikipedia, where everybody's opinion is equal.

But here's the thing - most people looking for information about British artists will want reliable facts, and informative opinions written by people who know what they're talking about. Wikipedia, for all its usefulness, can be a place of errors, hoaxes, and self-interest. Some ask why art historians don't simply go onto a Wikipedia page themselves, and fix any errors? One Wikipedia editor even told me that a distinguished British art historian was 'selfish' for having his own authoritative website, and not putting all his information on Wikipedia. The general assumption is that art historians should all work for free. But the greater truth is that Wikipedia is a difficult platform to operate, is policed by editors who sometimes want to do nothing more be pedants, and values industry over expertise. I wouldn't necessarily mind if Tate had an active programme of making Wikipedia better, with both text and images. But it doesn't. Tate is just being cheap, and treating its audience like idiots.

Tate's response to me and others on Twitter was as follows:

Sharing accurate and up-to-date information on the works in our collection is of course Tate's priority and we continue to share sources, links and insights from curators every day across our digital platforms. We have not replaced our online texts with Wikipedia. We introduced links to Wikipedia as an additional resource for artist biographies on our website two years ago. The information from Wikipedia is there to supplement the texts written about artworks by Tate's curators & researchers. This method is in common with other cultural institutions.

First, it's not true to say they haven't replaced previous online texts. Here, to take just one example, is a snapshot of the page as it used to be for Peter Lely. The current Tate page just points you to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page on Lely is longer than the old Tate text, certainly, but not as reliable; it says without caveat that he came to London in 1641, despite the fact that other sources say 1643. Second, I don't see the Louvre, the Met or in fact any other major gallery in the world relying on Wikipedia. The National Gallery in London shows us how museum artist pages should be done with its page on Titian, with well written text that also gives context to works by Titian in the Gallery's collection. 

Another Twitter user was given a slightly different response by Tate, that it was all to do with a lack of resources:

"The motivation for adding Wikipedia biographies is that, as there are so many artists in the collection, which is growing all the timewe do not have the resources to create biographies for every individual. Likewise we do not have the resources to regularly update existing biographies, which means that for living artists these can often become outdated. On the other hand Wikipedia pages are constantly being reviewed and renewed, so are usually more up to date than other artists biographies found online. We felt the best way of championing art and artists is to provide the most up to date and reliable biography possible within the constraints of our resources."

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' podcast

September 6 2018

Sound: ArtUK

I recorded a podcast on some of the challenges of making 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' with Ferren Gipson of ArtUK. You can listen here

'Art and Suffrage'

September 6 2018

Image of 'Art and Suffrage'

Picture: Francis Boutle

Leading the fight against relocating the Emmeline Pankhurst statue (see below) has been the writer Elizabeth Crawford. She has a new book out, Art and Suffrage, which:

[...] discusses the lives and work of over 100 artists, each of whom made a positive contribution to the women’s suffrage campaign. Most, but not all, the artists were women, many belonging to the two suffrage artists’ societies – the Artists’ Suffrage League and the Suffrage Atelier. Working in a variety of media – producing cartoons, posters, banners, postcards, china, and jewellery – the artists promoted the suffrage message in such a way as to make the campaign the most visual of all those conducted by contemporary pressure groups.

You can order a copy here

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