Transparency in the UMFA: The Copyright Debate

A few weeks ago, as I began to compose the first promotional post for the Holt exhibit and all of the incredible events surrounding the opening, I had a choice to make. Well, actually, a lot of choices to make.

This is something I have in common with everyone who works at the museum: choices.

Like our PR department and their campaigns, our website designer, our curators, and our directors, with every post to this blog that I make I have to make choices. Especially about audience. Should I speak primarily to the citizens of SLC who maybe aren’t devoted art fans, but may yet find interest and motivation to visit the UMFA? Or, should I speak to our well-established audience of art fans? What about young parents who hope to engage their children in the arts? Or, our members? Or, as the Campus Outreach Coordinator, should I try to target U students and faculty? The UMFA serves all of these audiences (and more).

As I was turning this over in my head while composing the Holt post, I started thinking about images that I could use for the entry.

One of the greatest things about this job is that every day I learn something new. And one of the first things I learned was that we don’t have permission to promote a lot of art pieces in our social media campaigns—this means Facebook, Twitter, this blog, etc. You might have noticed a trend on this blog to feature older works of art—it turns out dead artists are a lot easier to work with than living artists.

But, I wondered, how can I promote an exhibition by a vital living artist without showing any of her work?

It was then I turned to the Internet, bastion of solutions that it is, and found a sketch by Sean Baron. Sean, a former student of the Architecture Department at the University of Utah, had written a paper on Sun Tunnels, and made this really beautiful illustration. I loved it on its own merit, but it also seemed to potentially solve some problems, being primarily of course that it wasn’t the work of Nancy Holt, and that Baron was eager to give us full permissions to use it. And this would be a chance to not only engage with any art aficionados interested in the work on Nancy Holt, but to reach out to the U community as well.

It turns out. however, that this presented a whole new quandary. I didn’t know this at the time, but the UMFA gets a lot of submissions from artists with the hope that we will use their images somehow—we get so many, in fact, that we don’t have the resources to sort them, and have had to implement a policy saying that we can’t accept unsolicited art. Aside from this, any art that the museum chooses to represent must be approved—even solicited and chosen—by our curators, who help dictate our voice and direction. And I am certainly not a curator, so I guess I shouldn’t go around asking artists for their work. And though I’ve noticed that the blogs of other museums may, from time to time, feature the occasional cat-themed meme or art history-themed gif, the UMFA places such an importance on the curation of the museum that these images likely won’t be invited in. At least, not anytime soon.

Good thing someone told me, though, because I was going to talk about this creepy art world thing for Halloween.

Anyway, continuing the discussion of the use of Baron’s piece, we at the museum also began to wonder if this would solve our basic copyright issue at all—was this work portraying Holt’s Sun Tunnels just going to get us in trouble in a new way, since it was still, by some definition, her work.

And this, dear readers, is a glimpse into life working at a museum, where a simple cut-and-paste social media update is not likely to involve less than 10 emails, a few pit stops at the desks of fellow staff members for clarification and help, and maybe even a meeting or two. This post is the first of several I hope to do regarding what it’s like behind the scenes here at the UMFA, and as daily museum operations become less mysterious to me, I hope to make them less mysterious to you as well.

What do you think: how does sticking to the archives serve our conversation about art? What are some problems you see about the use of work of contemporary, living artists on social media platforms?

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