Day of Protests @ NGV - Christian Capurro

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Update : 15 December 2004

Christian Capurro

The response to our call to support the Day of Protests @ NGV was overwhelming and the protest a great success.

We estimate around 100 protesters took part in either the Friday morning performance outside the NGV International or the afternoon sketch-in at both NGV venues. We also received messages of support from at least that number again, from people who were unable to attend on the day, including curators and directors from a number of state and regional art galleries.

The Free Pencil Movement grew out of the frustration and anger a few artists felt at being prohibited from sketching and note-making at NGV exhibitions this year (The Impressionists, Edvard Munch and James Gleeson). It was soon realised that many other gallery visitors, including artists, scholars, students and members of the general public, had also been prohibited from sketching or note-making and felt similarly aggrieved.

The NGV has now publicly acknowledged this was a problem of their making brought on by poor internal and external communication of their actual policy regarding the use of pencils and pens in their various pay-to-see exhibitions. The NGV now says that The Impressionists exhibition is the only show at which visitors were officially prohibited from using pencils or pens; and that this was for insurance reasons beyond the gallery's control. From the personal testimonies we’ve received, however, it would seem this has been a point of public irritation long before The Impressionists show. Since then, apparently unbeknown to the directors, Venue Management and the security staff have continued to impose this restriction more-or-less throughout the entire NGV. Even in the last few weeks, wall signs making this prohibition explicit were still being pointed out to disgruntled patrons at NGV Federation Square.

We were protesting about the reality of the situation as experienced by many individuals. The prohibitions were being enforced, sometimes in the name of security, sometimes for insurance reasons and, most worryingly, sometimes on copyright grounds.

In the week preceding the protests, the director of the NGV, Dr Gerard Vaughan, called a special meeting of the Trustees to review this policy. The day before the protests he faxed to us a copy of the new rules and a letter of overall support for our position. ("In principle I agree with your concerns and I agree with your position.") The NGV has now communicated this clarified policy to all their staff. Their policy can be viewed at http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/policies/sketching.html

The day of protests at the NGV was intended to focus national attention on one specific prohibition, as well as to raise awareness of other associated issues, in order to have the No Sketching prohibition removed . Thanks to the quick and positive response of the NGV leadership, this has now largely been achieved. On Friday no one was stopped from writing or sketching and many of us felt it was a wonderful simple thing to behold. All three NGV directors (Gerard Vaughan, Tony Elwood and Frances Lindsay) personally greeted and Peter Tyndall inside the Munch exhibition. Dr Vaughan concluded his letter of the previous day, "I hope that the document I attach (the new policy), and the statements we made yesterday to the press, have clarified the matter. I want you to know that I personally believe that one of the reasons we exist is to inspire and assist practising artists, students and scholars. We must do nothing that inhibits their optimum use of the collections of the NGV."

However, there still remains the outstanding issue of the obligations imposed upon Australian host galleries, such as the NGV, by Art Exhibitions Australia, who manage Federal Indemnity for major imported exhibitions such as The Impressionists. It is this federal body which imposes the "no pens, no pencils" rule. As we understand it, another winter blockbuster indemnified by Art Exhibitions Australia is due for exhibition at the NGV in 2005. So, even though visitors are presently free to sketch and make notes in all exhibitions at the NGV, when next year's blockbuster arrives the NGV will again be forced by these federal regulations to re-impose this miserable restriction. Again, this will surely cause disaffection.

The free pencil movement will now encourage Australian host galleries, such as the NGV, not to accept any AEA indemnified exhibitions that impose this restrictive clause against the use of pens or pencils, no matter how marvellous the art offered. We believe these conditions are against the spirit of free speech and are an insult to the regular visitors who, otherwise, are now to be trusted with their pens and pencils in the presence of our own national collections of great works of art. We will also lobby the AEA to reconsider and remove this restriction. Please do likewise. Write to the AEA and to the Federal Minister for the Arts and demand this clause be removed. Not to do so, as we see it, is to acquiesce to the present culture of fear and prohibition.

Thank you to all who provided support of any kind. It was greatly appreciated.

free pencil movement

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract
(1762)