No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, Sunday Morning Edition

PG columnist Sally Kalson was honored the other day by the "Women and Girls Foundation" for her work in the media, so it is especially awkward to report that I ground and gnashed my teeth reading her "Snapshots of Italy" column. When smart and accomplished journalists go so far wrong -- these are local opinion leaders and reflections of the best of the rest of us -- it's easy to get discouraged about our culture and community as a whole.

The brief background is this: Sally Kalson went to Venice as a tourist, found a great personal guide to local art, and took digital snapshots of many of the paintings that she saw in Venetian museums.  All of this despite abundant knowledge of the rules that Italian museums and churches often impose on their guests: No photography allowed.

This sounds pretty innocent. American tourists have flouted local laws for generations, and civilization has not come to an end. Not only do the tourists and their photographs not do any harm, one assumes, but the local economies depend on us. Where would Italy be without hordes of shorts-and-tennis shoe wearing American families?

Moreover, Sally Kalson did the responsible thing when she returned to Pittsburgh.  She called a local expert at the Carnegie Museum of Art, wondering why Italian museums were so fussy about photography. After some head scratching, copyright was offered as the explanation, with the caveat that copyright expires after 80 years, so the Italians worry about nothing.  Sally Kalson and other shutterbugs are in the clear.

But not so fast.

Let's start with the small stuff: copyright. The idea that copyright expires after 80 years -- if in fact that's what someone at the Carnegie Museum of Art said -- comes from the same hat full of copyright myths as "everything on the internet is in the public domain." It is simply not true.

But copyright in the original paintings is not what is driving the "no photo" philosophy. Anyone who traveled to Europe in decades past and took photographs of Old Masters in galleries across the Continent knows that. The copyright status of paintings produced three and four centuries ago has not changed in the last 20 years. The paintings themselves are in the public domain -- because they were never protected by copyright in the first place.

What has changed, instead, is some basic economics. Museums need money.

The "no photo" philosophy is, as one might suspect after a bit of reflection, designed to protect the monopoly that the museum or church has on reproductions of its treasures. Buy the official print or the guidebook in the gift shop or online; don't take home your personal souvenir. One might think that it is silly to apply the rule to tourists with pocket-sized digital cameras, but a growing number of tourists don't have pocket-sized digital cameras. They have full-sized digital SLRs that are often indistinguishable from professional equipment, at least on casual inspection, and that produce images that can be used to produce saleable art reproductions. An inconsistently-applied, overbroad "no photo" policy is easier for some museums to announce and pursue (through modestly paid guards) than a "no professional photography for commercial use" policy -- though some musuems follow the latter approach.

What's at stake here isn't really any one tourist's desire -- self-ingulgent but understandable -- but the fact that museums often don't make enough money from admission prices and memberships to fund their operations. In the US, where most large art museums are private, the difference has to be made up via endowments and philanthropy. Endowment income has dropped; philanthropy is on the ropes. In Europe, most large art museums are state-owned. If state support comes via appropriation, that state support is also eroding.  Where state support comes via local tax systems (as they are, I believe, in some Italian communities), the tax base is suffering. The new economy of art reproductions and licensed images is essential to keeping many museums afloat, because traditional sources of museum support are no longer always up to the job.  And art museums are valuable, and important, to society as a whole.

Go to the gift shop and buy the expensive guide, in other words, and you help keep the museum alive. Ignore the gift shop and substitute your own private snapshots for the licensed alternative and you save a small amount of money -- money that in isolation the museum likely won't miss but money that in the aggregate is critical to the institution.

I should note that this economic perspective applies quite directly to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.  Even if they choose to permit photography, Pittsburgh's museums are quite happy to sell you posters and guides and would be quite unhappy if that revenue declined.

People who take photos of artworks even when they are told not to do so are free riders in a classic sense: folks who focus on their short-term private benefit and who ignore the long-term structural costs that they and people like them impose.  It is an economic critique, not a moral critique; free riders are not bad people.  They are rational and reasonable people in many and perhaps most cases.  But they may not be "big picture" people; they may have incomplete information, incorrect information, or limited ability or willingness to process accurate information.

Individual free riders shouldn't bear all of the responsibility here; acquiring good information can be really hard -- as Sally Kalson discovered when she called the Carnegie Museum of Art and was told something that is flat wrong.  When museums -- Italian or American -- pummel their patrons with "no photo" policies that seem unreasonable on the surface, they do those same patrons a disservice by failing to explain the implicit economics at work.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Our collective ignorance of that principle is on display all the time in Pittsburgh and beyond, all around us; it is a useful guide not only to personal behavior but to public policy problems.

Pittsburgh's pension liabilities, anyone?


9 Responses to "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, Sunday Morning Edition"

Anonymous said... 11/07/2010 10:47 AM

I will also add that flashes from cameras can do real harm to the surface of paintings and drawings, especially older works of art. There's a reason drawings are on display in dim rooms and for short periods of time, and that is because they are highly sensitive to light. Multiply the flash of a camera by the thousands of tourists a day, then by a year, and some older works of art can be exposed to incredible amounts of light, which will cause oil paint to flake off, paper to yellow, etc. CMU has an Art Conservation Research Center, I'm surprised they did not mention this more important than copyright reason for the no photography rule. There are several online sites with references for further reading, but locals might want to start here:

Anonymous said... 11/07/2010 11:45 AM

Eeh, sorry, just realized that your article mentions Carnegie Museum of Art, not CMU... the research center is through CMU, but the Museum should still know better.

Anonymous said... 11/07/2010 2:10 PM

So what legal leg does a museum have to stand on when it wants to prohibit photography? Especially a museum like the Smithsonian. It's a public space, right? The Mona Lisa has no expectation of privacy...

Mike Madison said... 11/07/2010 4:48 PM

It's a public space, right?

Well, actually, it is not. A museum (church, library, archive etc.) has the power to set terms and conditions of entry and of good behavior, and if you do not honor those, then the museum has the right to escort you to the door. Beyond that (which is usually poor public relations for the museum), posting a "no photos" policy where everyone can see it is intended to have an "exhortatory" effect (sometimes, lawyers refer to this sort of thing as an "in terrorem" effect) -- intended to ensure voluntary compliance rather than intended to give the museum a legal basis for sanctioning people.

I assume that you are kidding about the Mona Lisa, which is likely the most photographed painting in the world, despite the Louvre's "no photos" policy regarding the ML. ;-)

MH said... 11/07/2010 9:29 PM

Not the point you were trying to make, but if you have small kids, the Carnegie Museum membership is about the cheapest way to occupy them that doesn't involve TV. It's only $130 per year, which is pretty much nothing if you are there more than twice a month.

Most of the art is not my cup of tea, but they've got dinosaurs, the hall of scientifically justified taxidermy, the "fossil hunting", the Discovery room, and suitably creepy Egyptian stuff. You can also go to the Science Center, which is close enough that you can sneak away to the casino if there are other adults in the party.

Chad said... 11/08/2010 8:50 AM

Ms. Kalson's self-centered, amoral justification of -- to say nothing of her immature, untoward pride in -- her sneaky photo-snapping reminds me of many a debate I've had with teens and twenty-somethings who download (read: "steal") movies or music for which they have not paid.

"But I wanted to do it, and I did, because I really wanted those things, and what's the big deal anyway, cause I'm really just Sticking It To The Man in the end, since the only reason they don't want me to illegally download music [or take prohibited photos] is because they're greedy and want my money!"

Yes, kids -- the artists from whom you've stolen need to get some of your money so they can continue to make the music you like enough to steal but not enough to buy. And yes, Sally -- the museums you just flew halfway across the world to visit need to get some of your money so they can continue to be there for you, your husband, and other, equally selfish Americans to visit and repeatedly dishonor with your adolescent sense of entitlement.

That Ms. Kalson did it in the moment(s) is sad enough. That she seems so proud of it, and so pleased to justify it in print more than a week later, is even sadder.

Anonymous said... 11/08/2010 10:32 AM

Yes, kids -- the artists from whom you've stolen need to get some of your money so they can continue to make the music you like enough to steal but not enough to buy.

Having listened to the radio lately, I'm not sure if that is a feature or a bug.

Brad Fisher said... 11/11/2010 10:50 AM

Do you really believe this is apples to apples? I doubt regular tourists like Sally are snapping pictures of David's junk at the Uffizi (I know, it's in Florence, not Venice) for the purpose of appreciating fine art as published in the pricy gift shop books. Whether they have the right to or not, they're doing it to create their own art, and theft is part of the fun. My hunch, with some marketing experience, is that a strict no-photo policy wouldn't boost book sales for the museum any more than a liberal photo policy would hurt them. There isn't that much overlap between book buyers and snapshot takers. Museums probably know this. More likely the policy is aimed at professionals who would set up their Hasselblads and create commercial-quality images for resale to .. say ... your classier Vegas casinos. Those guys should be policed.

Mike Madison said... 11/11/2010 11:04 PM

If you go back through my post, you'll see that I agree with most of Brad's comment.

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