Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Every Picture Has a Story: Art on the Block's Imagery

The news this week of the Getty Museum's "Open Content Program" and its hopes "to share freely, and without restriction, as many of the Getty's digital resources as possible" was heartening at many levels –  and for a variety of different art world professionals.

Before writing a book of my own, I had often mused about the choices art historians made over their illustrations. Wouldn't a work by this artist have better served their point? Wasn't a different piece by that artist an altogether stronger work? Why not have more gorgeous color plates instead of the diminutive black and white so-called 'figs'?

As I approached the end of my writing and headed into the exciting prospect of illustrating 'Art on the Block', my very wise editors at Palgrave Macmillan cautioned me to set aside a good degree of time and a hefty piece of budget as I set about the image permissions process. They were right!

From the earliest stages of the book proposal, my vision had been to curate a small exhibition between its pages, using not simply documentary photography of the neighborhoods and players, but attributable works of art that had been created in response to the places, the people and the issues of the time. (I am sharing here a few of my particular favorites that made it into print.)

Anton Van Dalen, Evangelical Christian Church, 1983, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Anton Van Dalen and Adam Baumgold Gallery, NY.

With a Masters Degree in Art History and twenty-five years of looking at contemporary work around the galleries and museums, surely the choices would be dazzling and the process simple. I knew what I wanted. Getting it, however, was an all together different challenge and it is in this context that the Getty's move will be music to the ears of many a struggling arts writer.

Copyrights to works of art belong to the artist– and justly so. A painting, sculpure or film is the fruit of creative process, is intellectual property and and should be paid for as such. Even when an artist is no longer living their permissions process is often managed by their Estate. 'The Estate' more often than not is a small group of devotees working hard to protect the artist's legacy. Routinely staff- and budget-stretched, these estates often hand the cumbersome work of permissions granting over to agencies like the Artists Rights Society (ARS) or VAGA. Procedures must be gone through to satisfy these agents that the artist's work will be used appropriately and fees are charged for the service they provide.

Rick Prol, Soil, 1982-3, mixed media on broken window.
Courtesy of Rick Prol.

Even when a living artist is enthusiastic about a project and generously allows use of their work without charging copyright, images must still be supplied. A work might already be in a private collection or is currently in storage. An emerging artist is often hard pressed to pay for a quality photo shoot. High resolution, big file digitals often require paying for a YOUSENDIT or Dropbox account. Commercial image banks exist but their prices can run to many hundreds of dollars per image and make the use of a choice visual (or ten of them) way beynd the means of an author and their publisher. As we have seen this week, even museums usually charge for images of works they own.

While the Getty's move has its limitations to works in the public domain or in its own collections, it is  a step in the right direction. Let's hope that other arts institutions find ways to forgo this undeniably lucrative income stream, find that money elsewhere, and free up arts researchers and writers to get the works of art of their choice out into the world.

In the meantime I thank with utmost sincerity everyone involved in my ultimately getting (almost) everything I wanted in the centrefold of the book. To the artists who carted their paintings or drawings across town to get a digital shot, to the galleries who absorbed the copyright charges, to the archives and Estates who reduced their usual fee or were flexible on the wording of their contracts to allow me both print and electronic distribution rights. I am very grateful.

Elisabeth Kley, Jack Smith, Ethyl Eichelberger & Candy Darling, 2006, pencil, ink and gouache on Japanese paper.
Courtesy Elisabeth Kley and Momenta Art, NY

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