No sketching at the NGV

I have sketched in many galleries around the world, even in the crowded Uffizi gallery in Florence with tour groups moving around and the gallery attendants calling out “No flash! No flash!” I have taken copious notes in major art galleries and photographs (without a flash of course). There have never been any problems, it has been common practice for centuries which is why the no sketching, no note taking policy at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is an aberration.

“Sketching and photography are not permitted in this exhibition (no pens or pencils will be permitted inside the exhibition).

Kirsty from the NGV email enquires claims that: “During the exhibition Art Deco 1910-1939, sketching and note taking is not permitted as this condition is set as a requirement of loan from lending institutions for the exhibition. This is to ensure the safety of the delicate artworks on view and to allow visitors a better experience of the exhibition.” In 2004 Corrie Perkin, NGV head of communications, claimed that the no sketching policy for The Impressionists was to obey strict security conditions of private or institutional lenders.

I am skeptical about Kirsty’s claim for a number of reasons (I am skeptical of the claims made by any person who doesn’t give their full name). I can’t prove that the V&A set the policy because the V&A press office will not return my emails however the V&A’s own policy raises doubts. “You may take photographs or use a video camera in the galleries, but not with a tripod, monopod or supplementary video lighting. Flash photography is permitted.”

The idea that this is to ensure the safety of an artwork is absurd because it claims that the standard practice of V&A and other major museums does not ensure the safety of the artwork. And the ‘better experience of the exhibition’ is debatable and not a real reason that the V&A would give for not permitting note taking. There is so little fear that sketching will damage the art that many public art gallery around the world promote sketching. The J.Paul Getty Museum in LA has a special sketching gallery where it provides paper, pencils, charcoal and art sticks to the visitors. This is not unique when I visited the Courtauld Gallery in 2000 there was small still life exhibit with drawing table and materials.

In December 2004 there were protests by Free Pencil Movement against the NGV’s policy. And the NGV responded claiming special provisions for blockbuster exhibitions and over zealous and confused gallery attendants. However, the repeat of this policy for the “exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum: Art Deco 1910 -1939” begins to strain my imagination.

It is hard to find other no sketching policies, most galleries permit sketching on a maximum size of an A3 sketch book with no charcoal or chalks, no sprays or fixatives and an enclosed pencil sharpener. This is because the original purpose of a public art gallery was an educational resource for younger artists and designers. The V&A collection was assembled “to inspire those who shape contemporary design” and “as resource for learning and creativity”. The purpose of an exhibition where sketching and note taking are not permitted is strictly infotainment (and as promotion for the catalogue and other merchandise).

The earliest example of a no sketching policy that I could find was in 1867 when Mr William Colliss, an amateur artist was not allowed to sketch Warwick Castle. Mr Colliss drew a sketch of the incident from memory. I did find that at the Cleveland Museum of Art sketching was also not permitted for temporary exhibitions. This lends some credibility to the NGV’s claims although it doesn’t reduce my skepticism of the reasons behind it and my dislike of the policy.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

7 responses to “No sketching at the NGV

  • James McArdle

    Yes this ridiculous and really quite offensive for the innocent gallery visitor who is told off roundly by guards. Students from La Trobe Bendigo traveled to Melbourne at their own expense to see this show, and finding out they cannot take the notes I want them to is very frustrating. I can understand no flash, or even no photos, but not to be able to take notes or sketch is beyond reason. It is not possible to write an exhibition review from memory and only possible to write a very poor one relying on gallery handouts or expensive catalogue. NGV can do much better by its patrons.

  • Triecia

    I agree, what a ridiculous, authoritarian policy; it certainly runs contrary to the ethos of art being shared and discussed among the people. I routinely take pencil and paper into the NGV as no visit passes without my wanting to note an artist or painting that I would like to follow up. Now I will have to chant artists names in my head like a shopping list which will undoubtedly distract me from enjoying the exhibition; or I will have to purchase the catalogue. Yes perhaps there is a merchandising motive in this policy??

  • Dianne Gall

    You’ve got to be kidding me!!!!!!!!!!!! How is one supposed to study and learn? There are copyright rules to protect the intellectual content of a work, I don’t understand why there is a need for such restrictive mechanisms at the NGV.

  • melbourneartcritic

    Eventually, after further prompting from others, Olivia Colling, Head of Press at the V&A did reply to my email and confirmed that it is their loan policy. I was then contacted by Rita Palmieri, Executive Assistant, National Gallery of Victoria the following day to further “clarify” the issue. It may be the policy but I still dislike it.

  • No Note Taking = No Review « Black Mark

    […] taking” policy that is clearly stated at the entrance of the exhibition. I’ve written about the NGV’s “no sketching, no note taking policy” in 2008 this […]

  • No Flash | Black Mark

    […] that the policy on photography does vary across galleries. (I have written about this before in a post in 2008 about the NGV’s policy on sketching and taking […]

  • Blockbuster Nightmare | Black Mark

    […] sketching and even note-taking to manage the traffic through the blockbuster exhibition (see my 2008 blog post for more on that […]

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