When the Guardian journalist Oliver Wainwright visited an exhibition of underwear at the V&A museum in London in April, he was surprised to find signs banning sketching in the galleries. Reporting on this, he wrote that the ban “goes against everything the institution has ever stood for”. The museum told him that the veto is in place to prevent congestion and to comply with loan agreements for the show.
In protest at the ban, the activist group Arts Attack, formed of students from the University of the Arts London, staged a “sketch-in” at the museum. Another student, Katie Leach, launched an online petition calling on V&A director Martin Roth to lift the ban. In response, the museum is now allowing visitors to sketch on the ground floor of the underwear show, but not on the first floor; to allow it there would breach loan agreements, a spokeswoman told us.
The V&A is not alone in banning sketching at loan shows. On its website the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia says that loan agreements regularly forbid sketching and note-taking because of “the risk of unintentional damage being done in the context of large, moving crowds”. And on its website, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle cites copyright issues as a reason to restrict sketching. We asked the V&A to explain its position and invited a range of opinions.
Tim Reeve Deputy Director and chief operating officer, V&A
It is one of the great pleasures of the V&A to wander through seven miles of galleries and see people sketching; the creative process bringing objects to life. We don’t just allow sketching; we welcome, encourage and promote it. We were established as a teaching museum, and inspiring the artists and designers of tomorrow remains central to our mission.
Because it is so core to our existence, and our approach having remained unchanged for some years, our instinctive response to recent debate was almost one of incredulity—but it has also provided an opportunity for reflection. It is sometimes difficult to explain the many complexities of staging world-class exhibitions, so a perception perhaps exists that we are compromising too readily when borrowing objects, or that footfall and revenue generation are affecting our judgment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We always strongly encourage lenders to allow photography and sketching, and it is not prohibited in all exhibitions by any means. But if a major fashion house or private lender insists their object can only be displayed under certain conditions, we must decide whether to respect their decision or to weaken the exhibition narrative by excluding it. These are fine judgments, but we are committed to developing exhibitions of the very highest quality and with the objects best placed to support a compelling story.
That our temporary shows are also popular and sometimes very busy is, of course, true, and in the main that’s a good thing. We want to engage the largest possible constituency with our mission, but we also understand how important it is to strike a balance between encouraging access and providing a memorable experience to all visitors. David Bowie is was a highly immersive exhibition, a “happening” that really touched the zeitgeist, and the crowds played a part in making it singular and unforgettable. This exhibition was the only recent occasion when sketching had to be suspended to ensure that unprecedented demand could be met and that the full effect of a total audiovisual immersion could be experienced. This is the exception, not a “diktat”.
Katie Leach Student Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London
The V&A has made the decision to ban sketching in some of its temporary exhibitions, including Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. It has previously banned sketching for crowd control reasons in its 2013 David Bowie show.
For many years, students and visitors have been going to temporary shows at the V&A specifically to draw. This allows us to further our studies, and national museums such as the V&A are one of the main places we do primary research.
Sketching helps develop future generations of artists and designers—and isn’t this one of the purposes of public art institutions? We believe that art and design students and visitors should have the chance to be inspired and to sketch objects, instead of having to buy expensive exhibition books from the gift shop.
This is why we are urging the V&A to look for alternative ways of dealing with crowds and fulfilling loan requirements. Even if this means having to set aside specific times in the week when sketching is allowed, we are asking the V&A to allow students and visitors the opportunity to learn and do what they love.
• This is an edited version of an open letter to Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, that was posted by Leach with a petition to lift the ban at www.change.org
Jane Wentworth Brand consultant
Drawing is the best way to look, to teach your hand to connect to your eyes, to question the space an object occupies, to observe what happens when your viewpoint or the light changes.
In an age when we all capture images of what we see on ever more sophisticated mobile phone cameras, there’s a danger we forget the primary experience and simply scroll through hundreds of snapshots that may remind us of the fact we were there, but are unlikely to provide a lasting sense of what we saw.
The V&A ban may be for only one temporary show, but it’s the thin end of the wedge. The whole point of museums is to provide access to real objects, to allow time for “slow looking”, not to drive people through on a cultural conveyor belt. Inspiring creativity in design is what the V&A was founded for and, I hope, what it still stands for. I personally owe a great deal to my hours of drawing there—and in museums around the world.
Richard Wentworth Artist
Get out your thesaurus, and look at all the superb words for “seeing” and “looking”. You will swiftly observe that being watchful is an elaborate transaction, a gift particular to humans. The impulse to draw is given to children and developed by adults. Like the ability to sing, it involves very few “tools”, and is one of the great “economic” acts enjoyed by all cultures.
The great emporia of hoarded spoils are places of in-vitation. Whatever it is they have to manage, they should never be mistaken for being silos of ex-vitation.
Tacita Dean Artist
Sketching in a gallery is an ancient tradition going back to the beginning of the idea of the museum and its role as a place of learning. Just recently, I was looking at the early sketchbook drawings of antiquities by the painter David, which he must have seen in the collections of Greece and Rome.
I sketched in museums as a student, and still do. I last drew the back of a bronze statue in an exhibition at the Getty only a few months ago. What that sketch does now is to recall the moment, late in the afternoon, just before closing when I was in that exhibition with my family. I remember where the statue was in the room and where I stood to draw it.
Sketching enables memory in the way that photography replaces it. That is why it is so utterly dispiriting that the V&A has conflated sketching with photography in their recent prohibition. They are at different ends of the spectrum: near-mindless snapping of the iPhone (now the visual tick of the museum visitor) versus a concentrated relationship in time between an individual and an object. Whatever the reason given for such a ban—visitor flow, badly negotiated loan agreements, temporary exhibitions—the actual reason is that the Victoria & Albert Museum has forgotten who and what they are, and who and what they are for.
Grayson Perry Artist
When I see students drawing in my exhibitions, I wonder what they get out of it. I’m not saying that drawing is rubbish, it’s still very relevant to art today, but I question the stodgy, 19th-century notion that sitting on the floor in a darkened museum copying something for hours is that useful.
Ruskin would say that drawing is not teaching you to copy an object, it’s teaching you to look at it, but I think people fetishise the practice; it only really made sense in a time before images of works of art were widely available.
Of course, I go to museums and look at things. I might take a few pictures and write some notes, but I won’t make a laborious drawing of what I’m looking at. If I need to do that, I’ll Google the object at home or access the beautiful, high-resolution images in the museum archive online.
If you want to practise sitting and drawing, do it in your own home or outside somewhere in a field (although I’ve never done plein-air work—too many bugs). After all, lighting would be quite low in a museum gallery to preserve the exhibits.
There’s definitely a case for drawing; a lot of students I encounter can’t draw that well, but what can slavishly copying something teach you? You won’t have an original artistic thought while doing it. When I finished college in the early 1980s I was a life model for about five years and I never once saw a drawing of me that made me go “wow” or that I thought was interesting.
That’s why it makes me uncomfortable when I get held up as a poster boy for “craft” and the “handmade”. Most of my drawing is done on a computer.
I also rail at the fact that painting is still synonymous with art. To me, it’s a craft like wickerwork. Haven’t we admitted that a painting is nothing more than a canvas with a bit of colour on it? Of course, I admire the work of many contemporary painters, artists like Peter Doig and Tal R, but, strangely, pottery feels much more cutting-edge to me.
• Grayson Perry was talking to Cristina Ruiz
Stephan Farthing Rootstein Hopkins chair of drawing, University of the Arts, London
Although the best drawings aren’t necessarily the ones made slowly, the value of the act of drawing is its ability to slow down our looking and thinking.
Henri Cartier-Bresson quit photography towards the end of his life to concentrate on painting and drawing; he described photography as “an immediate reaction” and drawing as “a meditation”. Today most students quite rightly see drawing, photography and writing as partners, and use them as a package to translate the multidimensional world into more manageable two-dimensional forms.
The palm-of-the-hand-size sketchbook that Turner used to record his first visit to the Louvre (1802) proves that he spent as much time during that visit writing about the paintings as he did drawing them, drawing not simply to remember the paintings but to understand how they were made.
If you understand the pressure now placed on publicly funded museums to generate new income streams and safely fit new and larger audiences into old palaces, it should not be difficult to understand why the V&A feels obliged to increase the speed with which visitors flow through its temporary exhibitions: more people equals more cash. It would seem however, that if flow really is the issue, then writing should join drawing as another slow, likely-to-hinder-flow activity.
As an exercise in slowing down our looking and developing the contemplative rather than simply reactive side of learning to draw, I have focused my teaching and research at the University of Arts in London on museum collections, and by that I mean encouraging students to sit in front of the real thing with time, a pencil and paper in hand, and not a printer and an image on screen.
Gilane Tawadros Chief executive of DACS (the Design and Artists Copyright Society)
There is an opportunity here for greater public understanding of copyright and how it relates to artists’ livelihoods if the reasons behind photography and sketching ban policies are made clear.
If the public views copyright as complex and a hindrance to their enjoyment, there is a danger of putting it into disrepute if it is outed as a catch-all reason for a sketching ban when other factors may be at play.
For example, the copyright on a particular work may have expired, so copyright reasons would be irrelevant. If it is down to an artist exercising their copyright rights, this should be made clear. Opaque polices can lead to distrust and often misguided blame for either the artist or the museum, fracturing the intrinsic relationship with the public.
Copyright is an important right for artists to be able to control the use of their works and decide whether or not they authorise any copying such as photography or sketching, and many artists may allow for this in temporary exhibitions. Artists typically earn far less than the median wage in the UK from the creation of works and rely on copyright royalties as part of their earnings to continue their practice and bring enjoyment to the public and for generations to come. Greater understanding of copyright and clearer policies can bring greater respect and appreciation of the art and exhibitions on display.