I sit at my desk in a museum in the north of England. I am working on an exhibition about how a painting came into our collection. This has required research on family history, and I have been able to locate drawings that have never been on public display. I am excited about the opening. I just need to confirm the advertising with the communications team. I am waiting for a cost on using an image of the main painting for the exhibition posters. An email pings in… I open it with trepidation, ugh, the agency’s copyright fee is almost as much as the budget for the entire exhibition, it is clearly unaffordable to use that image. Back to the drawing board. I stew at my desk and my colleague enters the room:
Colleague: What’s up?
I can’t hold it in.
Me: Oh, the copyright on that painting, we can’t use it for the poster! And none of the other images that are out of copyright illustrate the main theme of the exhibition. It’s crazy. That painting is in our collection, it’s publicly owned, and we have to pay to use an image of it. How do they still get to control the copyright when the public own the painting? It’s so nuts!
My colleague shrugs.
Colleague: Well, it’s always been this way, whining isn’t going to change anything?
Me: Yes, but I wish it could be different
I lean back and close my eyes briefly; my mind starts to wander. How could this be better? How could we make this work better…?
I open my eyes.
I am standing in the entrance to a building. It is scruffy around the edges and has obviously been repurposed in the past. The receptionist looks at me expectantly:
Receptionist: How can I help?
Me: I, I, sorry, I’m here to see the Registrar about a loan of some artworks: Ms. Elder-Bard?
Receptionist: Oh, you must mean Lucy, our elder and bard. I will call for her.
I consider this strange job title as I take a seat on a sofa in the reception. As soon as I sit down, something else grabs my attention. The building seems to be an old Victorian school. I look through a set of doors that are propped open with fine gold lettering on them which reads “Material Education – The Hand of the Artist.” Inside, I can see a traditional classroom set-up, a teacher at the front of the class, with rows of students facing forward. Each student is in their late 60s, it reminds me of tours I do for our local University of the Third Age group. On each desk sits a stack of bright white printer paper, projected on the whiteboard is an image of a piece of paper, crumpled into a perfectly round ball. I instantly recognize this as Martin Creed’s Work no. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (fig. 1).
To my surprise, the teacher is not talking about the work, but rather holds a piece of paper up to the class. Her left hand moves clockwise and her right hand counterclockwise. Her fist then closes around the paper. She then opens her hands to reveal a near perfectly round ball of crumpled paper. She places it down on the table at the front of the room. The students all start talking excitedly, and paper is quickly picked up, crunched, and rolled in their hands. As I watch, the classroom floor becomes covered in egg-shaped, ragged and rough, crumpled bits of paper; not one of them is quite the almost perfect sphere the teacher had demonstrated. The entire class seems to be a Work no. 88 production factory.
Fig. 1: Martin Creed, Work no. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, paper, 1994, 300 x 210 mm, crumpled to approx. 50 mm diameter, V&A, London.
A woman arrives and breaks my intense watching of the scene.
Lucy: Hi, you must be Mr. Gallant?
Lucy: Fantastic, I’m Lucy, welcome to the museum. I see your journey was safe.
Me: Er, yes, thank you.
I mumble, feeling slightly spaced out.
Lucy: Great, so have you had the intro yet?
Me: No, no, I haven’t.
We get up and walk along a long corridor with classroom doors on both sides, each with a gold-gilded sign—“Elder’s Office,” “Bard’s Room,” “Spare Parts,” “Rehearsal Space”—none of them rooms I would expect in a museum space. The corridor then opens into what looks like the old school hall. To my right is a rack, housing maybe forty sheets of A4 paper neatly arranged on a grid of pegs, all covered in crisp Helvetica font. The rack stands next to a photocopier. A child—around ten years of age—stands in front of the rack of paper; she picks up a sheet, looks intently at it for a few seconds, steps back and flings her head upwards and screams at the top of her voice.
Child: This is so contemporary!
This makes me jump. To my surprise Lucy stops in her tracks, turns to the girl, bends down slightly, and screams back in her direction:
Lucy: This is so contemporary!
And then carries on walking as if nothing had happened.
Lucy: That’s the Tino Sehgal, I’m so glad we were able to liberate it, it really is everyone’s favorite to re-perform.
Me: Sorry? Re-perform?
Lucy looks through me as if I hadn’t asked the question.
Lucy: So, you said you hadn’t had the intro? Well, this is the school base which houses our collection, the museum includes spaces for display, passing on, and education. But really, we try and get as much of the work activated and out of our space as we can. We like to think that the core of our work is to have as much of the collection in use as possible.
Lucy speaks quickly, and I can barely follow.
Lucy: As you know, we are the first arts institution in the world to foreground public ownership and public use and are working towards a liberated art collection. Everything that enters the collection here becomes public domain, no copyright restrictions, and we approach each acquisition carefully with our team of theorists, lawyers, and bards, allowing us to provide a unique and bespoke form of public ownership and protection for each artwork. In the case of the Sehgal, it allows us to freely allow the audience to perform the work as they wish.
Me: Ah okay, so bard, that’s your title? I was going to ask…
Lucy: Yes, yes, bard, it’s from the old English, you know, like a singer, so part of my role is that I travel, and I learn about and tell the histories of art. I tell the tales of a work’s production, and I pass on the works, kind of like an oral history, just like a bard, apart from I don’t have a lyre and sing and dress up in green tights. Well, I mean, like, sometimes I do, but it’s usually James who is bard of the Paul Kindersley works who gets to wear the tights…
As we continue through the school hall, the child is having a raucous back and forth of shouting “This is so contemporary!” with another staff member.
We walk through another classroom door with “Archive and Collection Store” written on the glass in gilded gold. I wait for Lucy to unlock, but strangely she just walks in—there is no lock—leaving me having to double step to keep up with her. The door opens into a large classroom with blackboards on one wall and large, tall windows. The room is filled with filing cabinets, each with a computer server sitting on top, whirring gently. Both cabinets and servers are labelled A-D, E-H, etc.
We sit at a large desk in the center of the room. Lucy carries on talking at speed.
Lucy: Anyway, it’s the Andre and the Koons you would like to borrow?
Me: Ah yes, yes, please. For a show in 2024. We would like to borrow Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, and Jeff Koons’s New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker.
Lucy: Of course, as per your email. That’s all fine, I have had a check and these works are both in our singular reproducible department, we don’t have any bookings for them to be used anywhere at that time, so they are both available.
Lucy walks over to the cabinets and starts to open the A-D drawer and quickly pulls out a single piece of paper. She does the same at the I-L drawer. Holding two sheets of paper, she walks over to the photocopier and makes a single copy of each sheet. As she is doing this, I pull from my own bag a bundle of paperwork: security supplements, insurance forms, loan requests, and a text about the exhibition including an indicative budget. Lucy returns the two sheets of paper to their filing cabinet, sits down, and slides the photocopies to me.
Lucy: There you are, now we just ask that you follow the directions of use and let us know when the show opens. If you take images please do send across, an image of the works’ reincarnation is always nice for their biographies.
Me: Wow, you have really got your paperwork down to the minimum! Sorry, did you say reincarnation?
Lucy looks at me, perplexed.
Lucy: This isn’t paperwork? No, these are the works.
Me: Yes, the paperwork to borrow the two sculptures
Lucy: Sculptures…? Yes, this is all you need.
The door opens slowly, and a man pops his head around the doorframe.
James: Hi, Lucy. Sorry to interrupt, could I borrow you for a second? I just need a refresh on the loan to the prison.
Lucy: I’m sorry, do excuse me, have a look over the works I have given you and we can discuss when I’m back.
Lucy gets up and leaves the room.
I pull the two documents towards me.
Each is a single sheet.
The first sheet reads as follows:
Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966
Department: Sculpture / Readymade
Curatorial Theory: Conceptual / Objects replaceable like for like
Temporal Theory: Dreamtime / Grimoire
Instructions: Purchase 120 commercially available fire bricks, as lightly colored as possible. Place bricks directly on the floor. With bricks in a landscape orientation with their largest surface area flat on the floor, lay them in a rectangle ten bricks wide and six bricks deep; repeat directly on top to create a second layer. Push bricks together so there are no gaps. See below image for visual cues.
Fig. 2: Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966, fire bricks, 127 x 686 x 2292 mm, Tate, London.
I pick up the second sheet.
Jeff Koons, New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker, 1981
Curatorial Theory: Conceptual / Material shift required
Temporal Theory: Audience Relevancy / Dreamtime
Instructions: Purchase four vacuum cleaners. Three upright dry cleaners and one wet and dry cleaner. In line with the artist’s initial requirements the vacuums should be the newest version of the most aspirational commercially available vacuum cleaner. Place three upright cleaners in a Perspex box with 100 mm between the widest point of the object and the edge of the box on all sides. Underneath this box, in a low Perspex plinth, place multiple light fittings of the most common commercial form of lighting used in shop fitting within this plinth, lighting the vacuums from below. Place one wet and dry cleaner in a Perspex box with 100 mm between the widest edge of the object and the edge of the box on all sides. Underneath this box, place multiple light fittings of the most common commercial form of lighting used in shop fitting. Place this box on top of the larger box so that when viewing the work, the left-hand edges are aligned. See below image for visual cues.
Fig. 3: Jeff Koons, New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker, 1981–1987, 4 vacuum cleaners, Perspex, fluorescent lights, 2510 x 1370 x 715 mm, Tate, London.
I consider the documents. They are nothing like I have ever come across in my museum work before. Are they very simple installation instructions? They can’t be, surely, as they ask you to purchase new objects for these historic sculptural works. There is no condition report attached, no official loan forms or the dates you can display the works, no rules on photography, or credit lines, or insurance values. They seem to be instructions for remaking the works from scratch, as if they had been lost. But even then, they do not fit that purpose; there is no information on sourcing replacements of the original objects, no contact for the studio or estate. It seems to be asking you to replace the components not like for like materially, but like for like, maybe conceptually?
I start to write down questions. As I scribble in my notebook, Lucy returns.
Lucy: So sorry, where were we?
Me: You had just given me these documents, but I’m a little confused as to what they are? They seem like instructions, maybe conservation information? I came over as we would like to borrow the two sculptures for the exhibition. I’m sorry, was it not explained? I’m the curator, not the conservator…
Lucy: Curator, how quaint.
Lucy: Yes, yes, I know why you came, these are the works.
Me: Sorry, I don’t understand, so you don’t have either the Andre or Koons in your collection?
Lucy: Oh no, we do have them. Maybe I should explain, the collection here is post-copyright?
I am interrupted, Lucy talks excitedly.
Lucy: After the sector move towards decolonizing in 2022, we decided to work in a way which really attempted to conceptually decolonize how a museum might care for artworks. Well, decolonize is a tricky word. We prefer to say that we moved our thinking away from Western tradition and we actively encouraged multiple ways of approaching the protection of artworks. As part of this process, we gained an exemption to copyright for objects in the collection.
Rather than working to one set of museum standards and policies, which is often based in Western law and theory, copyright, ownership, the enlightenment, the artist as genius, all that jazz, we work in a way which is multi-theoretical. We work and learn from First Nation Peoples, lawyers, shamans, historians, theorists, communities, and artists to locate the most appropriate way of caring for each artwork.
It’s a kind of bespoke Registrar’s service. Instead of each artwork being forced into the museum system and kept for perpetuity, each artwork is carefully considered, and the most appropriate form of care is developed for it. It’s really been fantastic! Once we started collaborating with others, our policies changed and in turn this really allowed us to liberate our approaches to the art collection. And the first thing to fall, so to speak, was copyright—that’s why we call it post-copyright.
Me: Sorry… I really don’t understand. So, you researched links to empire and then worked with communities? And either reinterpreted or even repatriated works?
Lucy: Not really, that is an approach some museums took, but we were interested in contemporary art. How to keep new media, conceptual art, and readymades in perpetuity. We took decolonizing as an opportunity to reassess the very basis of the museum, the laws and policies that lay out how and what the museum does, and in turn, what we class as art. We realized these laws and policies such as copyright and the idea of a rarity that the market calls for, was not only coming from a Western tradition which should be reassessed, but many of these old policies were no longer assisting us but rather starting to control how we handled and care for works of art. This one-size-fits-all approach was starting to dictate what and how we collected.
Me: I, er… Sorry, I still don’t follow.
Lucy: Oh okay, erm, maybe an example to walk you through it? Museums all over the world are based on a shared set of laws and ideas, right?
Me: Yes, of course, like ICOM and SPECTRUM and the Museum’s Association code of ethics.
I place my hand on my huge pile of paperwork to demonstrate I understand her point.
Lucy: Absolutely. So, generally, these systems are based in one form or another of British common law. The very basis of the museum, the shared understanding globally, is that we must care for the objects in our collections in perpetuity and keep these artworks accessible for society. We must kind of pause these objects in time, stop them from disintegrating, and it’s illegal, or at the least very difficult, for anything to leave the collection once it’s entered.
Me: Yes, of course.
Lucy: This all works in relation to an art market that really prefers to trade in individual objects that are rare. Or, if an object is a multiple and can be reproduced, the market demands that the objects are numbered and editioned and made rare to keep their value. For instance, a screen print or a cast or digital photo or especially digital works like an NFT are endlessly repeatable, but to have a market value it has to become rare and scarce, so a photo will be printed ten times and each print numbered. Laws such as copyright support this process by providing the artist the right to decide who can make a copy or use a work of art.
So, we looked at these underlying structures and considered how they were all based in Western forms of thinking and asked if they were really suiting our goal of keeping artworks and making them accessible for society, and we realized most of them were not helping us do that.
For instance, copyright was designed to last for a set amount of time—I think it was like fourteen years to begin with—and was designed to protect the author of the work from copying to protect their income, but it’s now been extended to seventy years after the author passes away. Copyright was just not fit for purpose, it was designed for things that are exactly reproducible, like a copy of the text in a book. If a text in a book is copied, the signal the copy gives is exactly the same, so it can threaten the artist’s possibility for making a sale. A copy of a painting is just never the same in the same way; we have condition reports and provenance to tell us if it’s fake, plus as for financial protection we have already paid the artists for the work and it’s removed from the market and the gallery system, so that’s not really the best argument. It felt like this system was all to protect the artist, and the audience had been forgotten. After all, the audience does have a right to use and push culture forward off the back of these works.
For us as a museum, copyright just wasn’t making sense. The work of art was publicly owned, it had already exited the market, so a copy really didn’t create any threat or loss. We were stuck in this position with copyright where the object was both owned by the public and kept for their use, but the permission rights were left with the artist or estate. These dual concepts, trying to keep something forever and usable by the public while not being able to make copies of it or change it, was creating this situation where we felt we were protecting the wrong thing. Like, we were collecting conceptual art, but because of the law and copyright and how museums work, we ended up collecting these surrounding objects, making these objects primary and protecting and conserving them when really these things were only vessels for these ideas.
This led to debates over how we might preserve plastics, or if we should format shift videos that were decaying, which meant creating illegal copies. Because the whole system was based on this Western form of thinking, which protected the expression of an artwork, and rarity, and “authentic objects…”
Lucy makes air quotes with her hands.
…and the artist’s hand, and all these engrained ideas about art. We were losing sight of the underlying ideas. For instance, collecting and protecting instructions for reproducible sculpture and treating the piece of paper like it was a work of art itself, all because our system couldn’t cope with anything that wasn’t an object on a shelf. So, as I said, we looked for other methods, other ways of passing on knowledge, keeping things in perpetuity, encouraging a line of authenticity and a freedom of use.
Me: Ah okay. So, I think I follow. You only collect instructional work which can be reproduced?
Lucy: No, not at all. We collect all sorts, but we understand that the old system was one size fits all; we were attempting to force the entirety of human imagination into a set of policies only designed for one medium, one-off paintings, which in turn was decimating how the work functioned and who could use it. Here we have a multiplicity of approaches, each artwork is approached individually and has different temporal and theoretical ideas which underpin its care. Basically, we realized in order to care for objects from the whole of society, we couldn’t use an approach just from one tradition.
Me: Okay, so you mean like having a works on paper store, but just more specific. Like, you care for things in a very nuanced way?
Lucy carries on talking obviously excited on the topic.
Lucy: Well, sort of, but more theoretical. We not only approach each work as a specific material but really try to get to the bottom of its meaning; then we look after its meaning in the most appropriate way.
Me: I think I understand, but I’m still a bit lost…
Lucy: Okay. Let me start from the beginning. Years ago, this museum’s founder worked in a traditional space: taxidermy, paintings, etc. They were working on how to handle a collection of spiritual objects. This ranged from Pagan and Druid carvings which had spiritual or magical meanings to objects from Indigenous Australians which are spiritual in and of themselves. A conference was held and First Nation Peoples, lawyers, philosophers, theorists, and curators and communities were invited to an open discussion about how to handle these objects. On a break, the delegates were taken on a tour of the art gallery. The curator was talking about the Jeff Koons work and discussing how the work shows vacuum cleaners, which were new and aspirational and symbolize everyday consumerism. One of the Druids said he did not understand, as these were not new vacuum cleaners people aspire to having, but antiques, and he asked why they were not in the social history gallery. So, the curator tried to explain again that the work was about the newness of the vacuums at the time. Unconvinced, the Druid again interrupted:
“Well, they are dead, their time has passed, these vacuums are no longer new and aspirational, so if the meaning of the artwork is consumption, greed, and lust, the vacuums must be replaced and updated, because these are just useless old vacuums that nobody wants anymore. Even with folklore and traditional songs, they become updated to stay relevant as we pass them down.”
This was when it all changed. There was a realization that, in paying so much attention to the art object, we had lost sight of the work of art. From there on out, we reapproached every work in the collection. We placed at the center the need for the works in our care to be kept in perpetuity and to be as usable as possible, and to assist us in this we collaborate with a range of people who have wildly different approaches to concepts such as time, ownership, inheritance, tradition, and heritage.
As an example, working with the Druids, we came up with a series of works where the materials could be updated not like for like, but conceptually like for like. Like in a spell, you follow a detailed set of instructions, but the herbs are new each time; it’s the focus and belief that reinvigorates the work, not using the same sage. I’m not sure if you read the paperwork yet, but with the Koons you buy the most desirable Hoover at the time of the work being shown, as we came to the conclusion that newness and the desire for the object is really the heart of the work, not the original vacuum cleaners.
Me: Okay, I understand that, but isn’t this actually re-authoring the work? Are you not trying to be the artist? Isn’t the point the artist chose the original object?
Lucy: Well, yes, we have had some artists feel like that, but we allow their work to enter the institutions that still work in the traditional way. But the artists we work with, they are excited by this way of working. With some artworks we have gone even further and started to work in a way far closer to oral history and folklore.
Me: I don’t know what you mean there at all, sorry!
Lucy: Erm, okay. Take something like a folk dance, these are repeated across time and one generation teaches it to the next. So, some of the works in our collection act like folk dances. I am a bard, so I have learned a number of performances and artworks from my predecessors, and I travel around the country teaching these artworks to new performers and makers. Once I’m happy they can make or perform it, they are welcome to pass it on as they wish. We keep our teaching as true to the original as we can, and people come directly to us for that reason, but it’s like a dance—you can’t control how a dance is used, you just need to be aware of the original and then let it go and let it evolve.
Me: Hmmm okay, so, what kind of work would work like this? I can’t think of anything…
Lucy: Well, you saw the workshop as you came in? Many of Martin Creed’s works function very well. Color a piece of paper in until the pen runs out or play all the notes on a piano are easily re-performable concepts, so once we had gotten over this idea of the work being the material object that came out the end of the process and reimagined the work as being the idea performed through doing the action, we decided to teach people to remake them again and again, to keep the work alive through actively repeating that action.
Me: …and that came from a Druid?
Lucy: No, actually, the Druids really informed our approach to how the repetition of an action and following a recipe can bring about meaning, kind of like incantations. That actually informed the Sehgal work. The reproducible approach really came from some work we did with UNESCO on intangible heritage and working with a group of Indigenous Australians. We realized so much of our thinking around time and legacy was conceptualized around a linear form of time. Something happens, time moves forward. This is how copyright acts, a thing is made, it is protected for a certain amount of linear time. But the museum must, well, legally at least, attempt to keep objects forever. One of the Aboriginal Elders challenged us on this, on the paradox of attempting to keep an object paused forever. He opened our eyes to a precolonial approach to time that his community follows in keeping their traditions active. They believe in a creation narrative which includes a beginning known as the Dreamtime or The Dreaming, which is the foundation of their culture and during which spiritual Ancestors created the world. But unlike our linear time where we conceptualize a tale as being handed down generation to generation like a baton in a relay, for the Aboriginal storyteller time is more akin to being stacked; the story is not retold in our present by an individual, but told in the past, present, and future simultaneously by all decedents together.
The interesting thing for us was that, as a community asset, only certain elders can tell or retell these stories. We were totally fascinated by this approach, as it really challenges the very concept of the museum at its core: What is time, what is perpetuity and control? I mean, we would never say the museum was a dreamtime, that’s such a specific understanding of the world, but working with people who have such radically different approaches to our own has really allowed us to work towards our aims.
Lucy stands up.
I’m so sorry, but I must sort out the performance going to the prison.
Me: Okay, well… I mean, I would love to learn more, I’m still getting my head around it all. Maybe if I have any questions, I can email you or the registrar?
Lucy: Registrar? What? Please email me if you like, but I’m out the office for the next few weeks. A scout group is installing the LeWitt, then a church rehab center is reincarnating a Hirst pharmacy, God help them… and me! Ha-ha, but yes, it should all be clear, but if not, just Interpret it.
Me: Er, okay? I don’t quite have everything. I just need to ask you to sign the loan agreements.
Lucy: The emails are fine. Oh, and the Koons, I would recommend the Dyson, now that’s an aspirational vacuum.
She laughs, warmly.
Me: I would really like if, well, I would be much happier if you would sign them.
Lucy is already leaving the room, I hurriedly stack my paperwork, quickly daubing X’s where signatures are required and leave it on the desk.
I take my two sheets of paper, place them inside a protective folder, place them in my bag, and leave the room, looking for a lock as I shut the door behind me, taking one last glance at the paperwork I have left on the desk. I worry about what my manger will say when I admit I left them to be signed. I double step to catch up with Lucy as she walks across the large hall out towards the reception.
As we pass the classroom, a perfectly round, crumpled piece of paper rolls out the door and lands just before her feet. She picks it up and hands it to me.
Lucy: There you go, you can leave with a Martin Creed to take home.
Colleague: Ash, Ash, are you okay?
I open my eyes; I’m back at my desk.
Colleague: You zoned out. Are you okay?
I look at my desk, a round ball of paper sits crumpled on my keyboard. I unravel it, it’s the copyright paperwork for the show. I crumple it back up and look at the ceiling.
Colleague: Oh, the copyright license was too expensive?
Me: Yep, I’m fine, I was just daydreaming. Yeah, way too pricey, we can’t use that image.
Colleague: Well, just look for another image. It’s never going to change, so why worry?
I look at the crumpled ball of paper on my keyboard, then back at my colleague as she returns to her desk and shout hopefully:
Me: Well, it might! Hey, you don’t happen to know a Druid, do you?
Ashley Gallant is curator of the Ruskin Collection, Sheffield, and a PhD candidate in the History of Art at the University of Nottingham. His research looks at the way copyright and “copyright thinking” affect the collection, display, conservation, and use of works of art in public collections.
The author had hoped to publish the images of works of art in this text under the exception to copyright law that allows use for the purpose of criticism. All the images illustrate works of art in museum collections that are publicly owned. The publishers were unable to facilitate this request. The author feels this is a pertinent illustration of the issues this text deals with, demonstrating that public ownership of works of art does not always guarantee the usability of those works of art by the public.