Home > Art History, Chicago, Painting, Rant, Uncategorized > Studying in Museums & The Struggle for Access

Studying in Museums & The Struggle for Access

September 1, 2010


It’s been my experience that painting on location in the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago is a privilege afforded to very few and an utter mystery as far as permission is concerned.  Maybe I don’t have the right surname or lack the necessary contacts.  The day I shot this video footage, I was thrown out of the Impressionist gallery for using a monopod; I looked over on the way out at a woman who has a full easel rig, palette, supplies and a stool set up.  I recorded this as I walked by.  WTF?


I want to emphasize that I was using a monopod.  I had a Flip camera on it and the base of the monopod was in between my feet so it was impossible for anyone to collide with or trip over the monopod.  I’m really respectful about staying low key, in the background and out of the way of other people’s viewing experience.  I wanted to make a video on viewing distance and Impressionist art, but I got rousted by a security guard and thrown out.   It has bothered me for a long time that people do not understand how variable viewing distances will change the appearance of these paintings; the majority of people that view the works stand about two feet back and glide along the wall.  I was starting to get good footage of people doing this and wanted to shoot different distance views of the paintings.  Alas, my good intentions were thwarted within a few minutes by a bitchy Rottweiler of a rude security guard.

I’m really tired of der Museum Security Rottweilers chewing on my ass.  Really, really, really tired.  The one that threw me out told me “no tripods are allowed” and was confused when I told her I knew that, I had a monopod, which is not a tripod.  When I’ve been thrown out for using a sketch easel, they tell me “no tripods are allowed” and I try to explain that I don’t have a camera and this is not a tripod.  The “rules” are variable in their enforcement based on what section of the museum you are in and whether or not the security guard in question had a good or shitty morning that day.

Written materials indicate pens and pencils are allowable; “dry media” only and no charcoal.  [Fair Enough.  Charcoal is really freakin’ messy.]  Once I bring the sketching supplies in, it feels like there is a hidden timer on a countdown from the moment you start drawing until a security person fucks with me.  I’ve called, asked in person and written letters for years asking for clarification of their policies and how to apply for access to execute sketches or studies in the museum with no success.  James Cuno responded to one letter and things seemed better for a while.  Now it feels like things have gone downhill again.  Der Rottweilers cannot explain the museum policies because they do not understand them.  The most I have ever brought in the museum with me is a lightweight aluminum sketch easel that folds up to about 15” long, a small paper pad, pencils and erasers or a monopod and a camera.  Holding a pad of paper for a long period of time is hard, my arm starts cramping up.

I can only think that I get rousted on the monopod because the policy has nothing to do with visitor safety and everything to do with trying to control legal image rights.  If you have a higher end camera and the means to steady it, like a monopod, prepare to get messed with; because your interest in trying to photograph the art on display just ran onto the monetization of proprietary image rights and coffee mug sales versus the invaluable collective human heritage of the art itself.

I wonder if the devaluation of creating studies of existing paintings and sculptures had its seeds in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s whereby art merely had to emanate from an artist and the craft of learning through copying existing works was shelved.  This is sad, because learning through copying existing works was a teaching tool for centuries; what is the benefit of discarding it in contemporary times?  The simplest answers include concerns about safety to the works on display, potential messiness of materials being brought in and the social impact of having all those pesky artists around getting in the way and underfoot of the troops of tourists, especially during peak times.  I question if the museum is now meant to be some sort of shopping mall environment, where tourists pay to get in and cruise along the halls as a form of passive entertainment, buying their post cards and trinkets in the gift shop then heading home.

Museums used to be very active arenas of study.  Henri Matisse had a lot of stress from forced movements to different studios and living situations, WWI was a particular source of disruption; WWII was a chance to re-live the horrors.  Matisse was very adept at focusing on his art, what he could do with it and why it mattered; he sold prints to help the families of soldiers and captured men, he looked for ways he could innovate in his work and expand modes of expression.  In one of his relocations, he found a copy he had done of Davidsz de Heem’s “La desserte [A Table of Desserts]” from 1640 which he had executed in the Musée du Louvre.  The copy was excellent and skilled; it was about 24” x 36” in size.  Finding this work, he was inspired to work with it and apply his Modernist styles and methods, creating a large canvas, approximately 6’ x 8’ in size, a Modern re-invention of the de Heem copy.

                                                 Original oil painting by Davidsz de Heem, 1640

                                                 Modern re-interpretation by Henri Matisse

It was ironic to see these works on display together in a museum that strongly restricts access to the very activity that allowed the comparative works, the copy and the reinvention, to have been created.  The entrance to this special exhibit indicated that photography, video and sketching was banned.  Like all of these special exhibits, the end of the gallery decants you into a gift shop of merchandise based on the exhibit.

I continue to wonder how the woman with all the gear got her stuff in, during a pretty busy time, and settled in like it was her living room.  What’s her secret?  Is she married to the right donor or is the right donor?  Does she teach at the school?  Is it because she is wearing all black clothing?  Does she have the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket??

If a security guard starts to roust me for not being a passive viewer and good gift shop shopper, when security comes to roust me and argue rules that I’ve never seen in print, I’m going to forget about my nicey nicey art history educational video ideas, turn my camera on them and start playing Twenty Questions.

{*Note* Opinions about Museum Security Rottweilers are not meant to reflect on actual Rottweilers which are slobbery but lovable and have infinitely better personalities.}

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