Photography Not Allowed? 3 Questions About Taking Pictures in Art Galleries

In January of 2020, after a successful tour of my ninth art space in Southwest Nigeria, my friend, Leonard and I attempted to take a few snapshots of the spectacular collection at Omolayo Art Gallery.

Perfectly tucked on the second floor of Lagos City Mall, works of art on display included paintings, metalwork, human sized sculptures, beadwork and miniature pieces.

But – we were abruptly asked not to take any photos by our illustrious tour guide because this was against ground rules.

Questions about taking pictures in art galleries

Leonard did a really great job of making our tour guide change her mind, and we were later permitted to take photos.

My curious self wouldn’t stop sketching answers to the million-dollar question, why are photographs not allowed in art galleries?

And as I canvas-ed for expert opinion, I could draw a couple exciting discoveries from art fanciers and gatekeepers.

Enjoy!


Question 1: Why Are Photographs Not Allowed in Art Galleries?

#1. Copyright Infringement.

Going back to the conversation with our tour guide, she explained how photographing of artwork used to be welcome at the Omolayo Art Gallery but was later discontinued because of a portentous copyright infringement.

In the previous years, a man photographed a painting in the gallery and printed it for a company calendar. This was actually unknown to the artist who hadn’t even sold his rights!

And after being caught, the perpetrator and company got sued for millions of naira.

Sadly, a number of art houses and museums around the globe still contend with this.

You see, making paintings or printworks based on an original artwork would infringe the artist’s copyright and only artwork older than 100 years (length of copyright protection is seventy to ninety-five years) may be reproduced but, to ensure you’re not breaking any laws, seek permission from art collectors, gallerists or other relevant stakeholders.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa Covid-19 Parody
There are replicas and parodies of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa hanging in art museums and being featured on Social Media.

Art copyright infringers make personal gains off artists’ hardwork (yes, it’s a thing and I’m looking at you Michelangelo) either by selling duplicates or… designing calendars.

That’s being unfair to the artist, institutions and posterity.

#2. Frequent Overcrowding.

Taking photos of famous paintings like Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica could mean regular stops for scores of enthusiastic art tourists.

Whether it’s instructing friends to snap your best angles or spending so long on a selfie, free passage of photographs in art galleries may cause delays and overcrowding.

Is photographing artwork paintings bad

Overcrowding can pose a challenge to popular art destinations but it’s hardly ever a problem in climes where art is underappreciated.

#3. Light Sensitive Artwork.

Hey! I said No Flash Photography. 🗣

There’s this popular claim by art connoisseurs, paintings are super sensitive to light and as such they shouldn’t be… photographed.

And while art experts suggest that flashes from smartphones and professional cameras cause distractions within ambient art spaces (which I agree with), some argue that continuous flashes from these 21st century devices wear off colours on paintings.

You want to know why I strongly disagree with the latter? Keep reading.

I have visited a number of art destinations in my home country and in places where I was permitted to take photographs, I could do so without a flash.

LED lights in an art gallery

The thing is, art galleries are mostly well lit. I’m talking natural light, overhead LEDs, movable lamps and the kind that hang over artwork.

In some cases, these LEDs are much brighter than camera flashes and because exhibited artwork get an average of eight-hour lighting per day, I think it’s incorrect to paint a picture of the same “LED light” from hand-held devices causing damage to paintings.

In this aspect, the actual threats to hue of paintings are age and ultraviolet (UV) light, not flashlight from phones or cameras.

#4. Flawless Seclusion.

Quite a number of art galleries shut off visitors from taking pictures to create a mystery away from the prying eyes of the wider public.

Indoors, lovers of art may have a look around, ask questions or purchase souvenirs but photographs are usually no-nos.

This deliberate act of concealment could be a positive for art houses as visitors may uncover the secluded arts and craft for themselves but, it also backfires bigtime!

Have you ever visited somewhere in your neighbourhood and asked, how the heck did I not know about this place before now?

That’s the exact feeling I’m talking about.

Photo of lady with renaissance sculpture

Apart from art galleries, museums too long to secure many of their collections from “public photography” whether it’s an ancient Benin bronze work from Edo state or a classic Mercedes Benz covered in bullet holes after the assassination of a Nigerian Head of State.

#5. Art Theft.

Seems farfetched but Hollywood blockbusters such as Ocean’s Twelve, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Maiden Heist may have done a good job of influencing art gallery owners.

I’m trying to picture the last time stolen art was publicised in Nigeria without having to mention pre colonial years but, erm… I’m blank.

A colourable opinion, I’d think.

Now, I’m not discrediting claims of art theft in art galleries or museums across the world don’t get me wrong but I believe that art theft shouldn’t be entirely blamed on photographs.

Taking pictures of paintings in art galleries

Art theft statistics say that more than 50,000 pieces of artwork are stolen each year around the world and high powered art dealers, gallerists, insurance companies, security experts and art bigwigs are working out ways to curb this menace.

Question 2: Is a Restriction on Photography the Best Choice for Art Gallery Owners?

“In the age of the internet when a piece of content is shared online, the value of that content increases not only for the Museum and the person but the world at large!”Jia Jia Fei

Comically, recent studies have shown that attendance grows in greater numbers when visitors are allowed to take pictures in art galleries. A good example of this would be the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., United States of America.

On encouraging photographs, the Renwick Gallery which is a stone’s throw away from the White House, broke its yearly attendance record in just six weeks!

Photography and artwork paintings

Bringing it home, the Nike Centre for Art and Culture which is the best art gallery in Nigeria according to TripAdvisor, owes a lot of its success to its massive collection and, letting tourists snag photographs and vlogs.

That’s free marketing!

Using these as case study, it’s easy to draw the conclusions that welcoming photos in art settings will positively impact attendance from art aficionados and dealers.

Question 3: How Can Gallerists “Safely” Welcome Photographing of Artwork?

Art exhibition is a remarkable way to grow attendance but gallerists who have a hard time nipping copyright infringement in the bud or are totally uncomfortable with photographing of artwork, may exploit the following tactics.

  1. Create Instagrammable Spaces. Allow photographs in parts of the art gallery. This can be accentuated with murals, “sign-on walls” or picturesque sculpture.
  2. Have Active Social Media Accounts.
  3. Encourage Spectators to Use Certain Hashtags or Tags. #ArtxLagos #GallerySelfieDay
  4. Follow Art Enthusiasts on Instagram.
  5. Host Friendly Shows. Check Paint & Sip organised by @justpaint_ng on Instagram, it’s a good enough example.
  6. Set Attendance Limit.
  7. Make Photography Guidelines. Photographs restricted in this area? The owners of art galleries may work out non-specific principles to control public engagement with artwork.

Observing paintings in art galleries

Conclusion

It’s very difficult to make a blanket decision on this matter especially since we live in the age of internet and social media.

Nowadays, it’s so easy for tourists to get more engrossed with taking pictures of art rather than learning a single thing about the art itself. Like, imagine visiting The Louvre in Paris for only group selfies with Mona Lisa?

I know, sounds ridiculous but this happens.

What art gallery owners and directors around the world can do is encourage tourists to educate themselves about artwork either by reading beforehand or asking questions onsite.

This adds an extra value to art.

Do you think more art galleries and museums should allow photographing of artwork?

I want to hear from you in the comments section.

A visit to Biodun Omolayo Art Gallery Lagos
Photo of me at Omolayo Art Gallery, Onikan.

Let’s keep talking about artsy stuff on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.


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Why art galleries stop tourists from taking photos

38 thoughts on “Photography Not Allowed? 3 Questions About Taking Pictures in Art Galleries

  1. This is interesting! I never really understood why taking pictures was so taboo but it does make sense that it would be used to fake the artwork. In 2020 and the concept that “if it ain’t on the gram it didn’t happen” it really would make sense to allow some sort of photography to happen in museums.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly Shelly, the beauty of some of the world’s most seen tourist attractions initially comes off the internet and social media platforms.

      And then, people from around the world go visiting, take more photos/videos and spread the good word.

      There’s immense advantage of allowing photographs in art galleries and museums for the owners, collectors and prospective tourists.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoa, plenty? You’re super lucky Andy.

      In art galleries I visited, I had to ask for permission or convince tour guides that I’d write a review. 😆

      About crowds, I guess owners of galleries (if they read this) could use some of the guidelines I suggested and while photography has its many benefits, it also has the potential to impede the overall artsy experience.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Like

  2. Thanks for that analysis of photography in a museum. It’s a lot to think about, especially nowadays when practically everyone has camera phones. I do admit it is distracting to see people taking pictures in a museum these days, especially since I remember a time when that stuff wasn’t around

    Like

      1. Oh I think there is, photos can help people discover amazing art collections off the internet without having to travel. And when it’s finally time to explore, it’s much easier to plan an exciting itinerary.

        But like everything, photography should be done in moderation.

        Like

      2. I saw a total solar eclipse for real a few years ago and it was SO worth the trip there! I knew someone who wanted to watch it on his HD TV but that was on him. I did see something cool though and that wa the International Space Station photobombing a space photo of the eclipse!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Whoa! That’s totally awesome Winteroseca.
        LoL… I think I also witnessed a solar eclipse when I was a kid but now I can’t remember much of it because there were so many myths flying around. 😩

        Like, how you could lose your sight, become a superhero or burn your eyes from just looking. 😂😂😂

        Of course, nothing beats seeing certain things in person and adventure travels are usually worth it. 👍

        I don’t just think it’s fair that some travellers can’t preserve memories of their trips to art destinations because of photography bans.

        Thanks for your interesting comments. 🤗

        Like

  3. Leave it to you Ero to have the gal change here mind with that kind heart and big smile of yours. Faboulous pics and lots of them. I really loved the mask and the t.p. on the Mona Lisa.. So great.
    We are such a litigious society today that and there have been some thefts so I get it. It seems you should be able to just copywrite it but idk.. I’m just grateful for the exhibit! .
    You’re good with the camera that’s for sure and I wouldn’t mind some photographyb done by you wih lots of touch ups. ❤️👏🤗 ❤️ Cindy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, thanks a bunch! A lot of her “changing her mind” is actually credited to my friend and I’m so glad you love the pictures, they’re from Pexels.

      The Mona Lisa’s photo is astounding and you’d be surprised how many people may have been convinced to use facemasks because of it. 😆

      I’m grateful for the exhibits too but photographs are some of the best ways to preserve such beautiful memories. I think there should be more but, in a controlled manner. 😏

      Thanks again for the praises Cindy! 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh I hardly believe that lol!
        He can’t be near as charming and convincing as you!
        Oh wow, they are really good!

        I can image one she swayed the masses thank goodness!🙏
        Yes, I so much agree woth you!
        Keep smiling and spreading your light that you do so well! ❤️💕🙌
        💕Cindy

        Like

  4. I admit, I’m guilty of ignoring “No Photography” signs at museums. Just because I find a painting so pretty that I want to take a photo to remember it! From experience, most museums don’t actually care if you take pictures; I’ve only had a handful which were SUPER strict, and I got chastised for doing so…any case, you make good points about respecting the art without photography. Sometimes, it’s simply admiring it with your eyes (the “photo lens” of the human body) which is more impactful than a photo in your camera!

    Like

    1. Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts Rebecca. I was also guilty of visiting artsy places just for photos. Now, I’ve learnt that knowing something new about a painting or sculpture adds way more value.
      It’s great to document such exciting and dreamy experiences with photographs but it’s even better when you know the artist or reason behind the art.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow this is quite the thought provoking read. I always had these doubts.. You cleared them nicely… I never knew that painting could be light sensitive.. I learnt something.. Haha loved the Mona Lisa pic with the mask.. I found it funny that even painting are sacred of covid… Good day pal

    Like

  6. This is an interesting set of claims. They all make sense, but to me the 2 main ones that jump out are the following:

    1. Things like Mona Lisa or the Starry Night are known by everyone and it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference if an extra person takes a picture and posts it on social media. But smaller galleries with contemporary artists probably feel that if their art gets posted online, people will not bother to come in to see it in person. Therefore, the gallery would lose a lot of potential visitors and income. But according to your examples, this can go either way.

    2. Reproducing gallery art would take a lot of photography skills and really high resolution. One way this could be addressed is by gallery actively posting their art on social media with credit to the artist. That way people would be less likely to attribute it to themselves online. It is not a guarantee of course.

    Like

    1. Yes Yana, I absolutely like your take on this matter. Copyright infringement seems to be the number-one reason why galleries restrict photography but with the use of social media particularly when artists are properly credited, that could be reduced to a reasonable extent for newer artists.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I’m eternally grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It is so disheartening when you are not allowed to take pictures in art galleries/museum. Photos are meant to keep memories of events… but as for photographing of artwork, I disagree with that because of what you stated above. Thanks for shedding more light on why photographing of art work is not allowed in art galleries and museum, because before now, I never understood.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Kosadriel and I’m super glad my article made it easier for you to understand the restrictions on photographing artwork. Of course, it’s saddening when someone travels far and he’s not allowed to keep memories because of such policies but, times are changing.

      Like

  8. Great piece. I initially thought it was going to be about the photography policies in tourist attractions in Nigeria (especially Lagos) – not just Art centres or museums. I can understand not taking pictures in galleries but in tourist attractions like parks and resorts? I don’t get it! Sorry, that was a tangent.. back to the topic: I like that Nike Art Gallery allows photography inside but somehow I think that’ll come to an end someday – I hope not though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nah, I actually like your new idea Amarachi and maybe I’ll just look into that someday, with enough research and evidence of course.

      I actually believe that photography could be banned in destinations like exquisite beaches and resorts, parties or maybe, military facilities but the way it’s done in Lagos, it’s quite mindboggling.

      About Nike Art Gallery, I doubt they’ll stop photography anytime soon since Mama Nike Davies-Okundaye is still very much in charge.

      She made the rules I guess and I hope they stay that way.

      Liked by 1 person

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