On the policy of outright bans on photography in arts institutions.
From the title you can guess which side this article will be taking.
Also, just to add to the time constraints, I’m hosting the @We_Love_Aural account on Twitter this week, talking about my love of music, arts management, and getting people involved in music, so give it a follow!
Okay. Serious topic time. Three times in the past three weeks I have had encounters during visits to artistic facilities where I have been told that photography is banned. This refers to ALL photography, and not just flash photography, which is a different issue in itself (and is rightfully forbidden for conservation reasons).
Banning photography outright is a problem. Not for me, but for those facilities. Because they are signing their own death sentence, by actively driving away the same customers that arts organizations spend so much time and money to get in the door in the first place.
And here’s why.
On two out of the three occasions, the request was delivered to me by customer service staff who were abrupt and forceful. Not an approach of “We’re very sorry, but unfortunately photographs cannot be taken in this museum.”, but a “No photography allowed.”, “Stop taking photos. Now.”. In one case, the staff member wasn’t even wearing the full uniform of the organization, shirt untucked, badge not on. These are front line customer service staff, the most important link between the audience and the organization.
Is this really how an organization wants to portray itself to customers? As aloof, rude, and disheveled?
Front line staff are the most important marketing asset to your organization. They are the ones that create personal relationships with your customers, plant the seeds for that return visit, and spread the good word about what you have to offer. It is paramount to make sure that they have the resources and the training to delight the customer every time.
Moreover, in all three cases the ban on photography was not clearly posted throughout the venue, or at all. Even for a detail oriented person like me, a small sign placed as a footnote at the entrance isn’t going to cut it. Just like your marketing, your signage has to be clear and unambiguous.
Even with a top notch customer service team, the policy of not taking photos is counterproductive to engaging audiences. Engagement is the key word here. Time and again we hear that audiences in the arts want to be engaged. The recent Culture Track report of LaPlaca Cohen notes that audiences are in a "transitional moment" for combining technology with culture, and that they are "...leading the way in defining the new norms". To reinforce the point, the report provides a shot of a museum-goer taking a selfie with a sculpture, followed by these statistics: 66% of audiences are using smartphones to take photos, and 47% are sharing those photos online. A policy banning photos may be driving off half your audience!
Giving people the ability to engage with the venue and the works by letting them take photos and post them on social media is key to making the experience great, and for getting them (and their friends) back in the door.
It’s also some of the cheapest marketing you can engage in. Your customers posting photos on social media isn’t just free advertising to a broad audience, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to build relationships with the customer. Someone tweets a photo of a painting in the collection? Tweet them back to tell them that you’re glad they enjoyed the visit. Start a conversation. Better yet, give it a retweet or a favourite. Make them feel noticed.
All it takes is a few keystrokes and a click.
Addressing the “Why”
This is all fair and good advice, but let’s be fair and consider why anti-photography policies exist in the first place. Being the kind of person who doesn’t consider a straight up “no” to be an acceptable answer, in each case I attempted to find out why these policies were enacted. In the first two cases, I got nowhere, just a repeated “no” (in Italian), or just a blunt “Sono le regole” (“It’s the rules”), with no further elaboration (see above regarding terrible customer service training).
It was only on the third case, where a (very polite) staff member mistook myself and my housemate as being part of a group of journalists also at the museum, that we got some insight as to the motivations.
Public vs Private
Interestingly, the request related to the fact that it was a (partially) private collection. Looking back at the other cases this was also at least partially true, with private collections or stakeholders being involved.
Ironically, in two cases, the collections were alongside or near to public collections which actively encouraged photography and sharing on social media. For all the talk of government disorganization, it would seem that the public sector arts administrators are more clued in on how to engage their audiences.
Copyright, Cannibalization, and Substitution
But what would motivate a private collector to ban photography? Here I move into the realm of speculation. Whatever the reason is though, it can’t be because they don’t want people to see their works – after all, they’ve placed the works on display for that very purpose.
The argument of copyright protection is often advanced, but doesn’t really hold water in my view, in that a photograph of an artwork or a performance on a smartphone is nowhere near to a faithful reproduction of the piece. And audiences are intelligent enough to know that – they realize there’s difference between a photo/recording and a live performance (as an aside, emphasising the magnitude of that difference is a necessary part of marketing to get the audience into the venue).
Furthermore, if someone was so determined to attempt to forge the work, they wouldn’t go about it with a smartphone. They’d be more subtle, and have better equipment.
So perhaps there’s other arguments to be made. How about cannibalization? Is photography eating into the revenues for exhibition catalogues and professional recordings? Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any data to confirm or deny this, but my hypothesis is that this effect is insignificant, for the same reasons above. A smartphone photo is not a catalog. Moreover, I’m not convinced that the target audience for the catalog and the people actively engaging with the works on social media are the same demographic (at least not to begin with). Perhaps this is a topic for more research.
Then what about substitution? Is seeing a photo on social media enough for a person to not want to experience the real thing? Here the evidence is scant and conflicted. On the one hand, the continued international tourism to famous museums like the Louvre or the Tate would imply that a photo of the Mona Lisa isn’t a substitute for the real deal. On the other hand, evidence is starting to emerge that there may be an effect that viewing a professional recording of a live performance may act as a substitute for seeing the real thing. We already know from the work of the National Center for Arts Research that the presence of cinemas in a market is negatively correlated with contributed revenue. Moreover, the aforementioned LaPlaca Cohen report notes that 66% of audiences define the live cinema broadcast of a performance as a cultural activity; an indicator that it may be perceived as a substitute product. Again, further investigation is required, but again my instinct is that a sound marketing strategy that reaches out to audiences can overcome this effect, even for the performing arts.
Changing the Situation
So what can we do to change the situation? After all, the phenomenon appears confined to private collectors (and even then, many private collections I have visited have been more than happy to allow photos and social media sharing). As always, a process of education and dialogue is necessary.
As arts administrators, we need to open a dialogue with private collection holders, to better understand their reasons as to why they are reluctant to have their collections photographed. We then need to address these reasons through educating collection holders about marketing and audience engagement, and about how sharing the collection to a broader audience is beneficial for all stakeholders.
At the same time, arts administrators need to be wary at the negotiation phase for exhibitions, looking carefully at contractual obligations on photography and reproduction that may not only place them in a difficult customer service position, but may cause them to enact policies contradictory to their mission and strategy. In one of the cases, the private collection was alongside a public collection, which led to a conflict of policies (photos were in one room encouraged, and then banned in the next). It was little wonder that they were having trouble enforcing the rules.
Free Your Art
Moving to a conclusion, in the arts world we face myriad challenges in fulfilling our mission, especially when it comes to getting audiences not just through the door, but getting them to come back again. There may be valid reasons for not wanting works photographed, but equally valid is the notion that enacting such a policy creates a roadblock to audience engagement, and damages your reputation. Giving people the chance to record and share their experiences is a great way to keep your organization alive, relevant, and popular.
Free your art and boost your audience.