Art museum bans pencils and sketchpads

John William Waterhouse: Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). This painting is not in the special exhibition at the de Young. I just like it.

Here's your daily dose of confoundingly moronic logic: the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum ( a public, city-owned institution in San Francisco) forbids people from sketching the special exhibitions.

Pencils are allowed in all nooks of New York's Museum of Modern Art, for instance, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston only concerns itself with serious replication (as in, "you must obtain a written permit to copy using oils or acrylics, and/or to use an easel"). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art? As long as you don't use a pen, you're fine.

Heck, the Berkeley Art Museum goes so far as to have pencils available at the counter where you buy your ticket.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Clare Kunny of the education department was surprised I even called to ask.

"This is something we highly encourage," Kunny said. "It's an age-old tradition."

I've sketched at the Getty, and anyone who has sketched an original painting (and not just a print, which can never capture the vitality of the original) will attest to the incredible value of this type of study.

De Young draws the line on sketching (Thanks, Jason!)


  1. I was surprised this was the case at nearly all the national museums in Japan as well. In some cases flash photography: ok, sketching: take a hike.

  2. It’s pretty moronic that they’d decide to disallow sketching but honestly it’s not the first place to do so. Here in the Vegas Bodies exhibit they had a policy against artists sketching the bodies. My art teacher was able to do so once with a group of students with consent from the exhibit but they’ve since made it impossible to do so.

  3. is it okay if i retain a memory of what a painting looks like?

    ~ what’s that sound?
    ~ millions of artists spinning in their graves

    1. Actually no, that’s protected information so you’re causing illegally copying and retaining intellectual property in your short term memory.
      By the time long term memory comes around, it’s so compressed it’d be hard to make a case, unless of course you remember it sometime down the road.

      To whole:
      How can you reflect in a mirror which has no reflection? Should you even call it a mirror?

      Playing of good old Oscar, current artistic/ownership rights make all ‘protected’ art more useless yet when it’s been made increasingly static to the manufactured zeitgeist. “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely…” And so art becomes truly worthless if no one can admire or be inspired by it.

  4. I have a high-resolution camera that fits in a pack of gum. It can be rigged to shoot through a lapel buttonhole. It cost about $50 US.

  5. Pencils is permitted in the Met in all permanent galleries, special exhibitions are typically allowed, but not always and photos are typically never allowed. Special exhibitions are always dependent upon so many permissions that it’s generally easier to just limit what people can do there.

    I don’t see De Young’s policy on this as any different than most museums with special exhibitions, I think you skipped this important line in the search for a better headline:

    “While the de Young does allow sketching and photography in the permanent collections”

    1. No, that’s incorrect. You can definitely take non-flash photos at The Met, of anything that’s in the permanent collection. You’re even allowed to use a tripod if you ask at the front desk and get permission. You’re not allowed to take photos in the special exhibits, or of anything on loan.

      I asked my friend who works there why this is, and she told me it’s mainly for logistics. The special exhibition areas are generally small, and almost always packed. Having people take photos gets in the way of other people enjoying the exhibit. That seems pretty fair to me.

      They don’t allow photos of art on loan, because they don’t own the works, so they don’t have the right to allow others to photograph it. That also seems reasonable.

      I’ve spent more time at The Met than any other museum I’ve ever been to, and maybe more time than any other public place in NYC. I’m not much of an artist but I sketch there a lot. I’ve never had the staff so much as bat an eye at me, other than to make a friendly inquiry about what I was sketching to discuss the art.

      It’s also common to see people with entire easels set up copying the painting. I give The Met a big thumbs for letting you enjoy and interpret the art any way you like.

      They even have a Flickr page, and encourage people to share photos of their visits.

      1. I believe I was typing too quickly to be as clear as I meant to be about special exhibitions. I was filled with annoyance about the lazy writer not bothering to call and lazy BB grabbing the exciting parts of a crappy story and making an exciting headline.

        What is “Pencils is permitted in the Met in all permanent galleries, special exhibitions are typically allowed, but not always and photos are typically never allowed.” should read “Pencils ARE permitted in the Met in all permanent galleries, special exhibitions are typically allowed, but not always and photos are typically never allowed IN SPECIAL EXHIBITIONS.”

  6. i haven’t been to the de young since herzog & de meuron built their new green meshy thing – so perhaps their collection has improved since then: but it used to be crap (with exception of the bouguereau parlor paintings). it’s for the best, really, as any artist will profit more, artistically, sketching at sfmoma.

    in nyc: moma allows us to use pencils but doesn’t allow sitting on the floor or a folding stool. that’s lousy, actually, since none of the benches are placed near good sketchable paintings. but of course the metropolitan does & its absolutely the best museum to draw in nyc..

  7. Yes, we absolutely MUST protect the artist’s rights. Especially when the artist has been DEAD for several centuries. :eyeroll: Where in the name of reason is it all going to end? On second thought, Reason, bless her dear heart, has nothing to do with such madness.

  8. The de Young Museum in San Francisco has a long and uninterrupted history of being run by a sad combination of the grossly incompetent, and out-and-out crooks. A rule against sketching in the museum is about par for the course. I have been disgusted with that institution for decades because of things like this. This particular rule aside, this nothing new for the de Young.

  9. Sad for me because I learned to draw at the DeYoung. They had classrooms in the Museum building. You could start your class, go through a mystery door and find yourself in the galleries where you could sketch. Maybe they only allow sketching by people who have paid for classes.

  10. The recent exhibits on Impressionism at the de Young on loan from the Musée D’Orsay have been so very crowded, though. It’d be nice if you could sketch Starry Night or Whistler’s Mother, much less the handful of Bouguereaus they’ve displayed, but I’m glad I was able to get tickets just to peer at them through packed shoulders, given how over-subscribed yet wonderful they’ve been.

    1. This is correct. It is all about the crowds. There are certain paintings in the exhibit that are super popular and it would be a pain if people would spend 15 minutes in front of them schetching.

  11. Calm down people, the de Young still allows sketching in all their permanent collection galleries.

    The issue that the reporter didn’t understand is that traveling exhibitions come with their own set of rules that are determined by the loaning museum or collector. Also its standard practice at most museums in the world that when an exhibition is really popular, the museums have the right to limit or not allow sketching.

  12. as a museum educator in SF, at more than one museum. the museum/s actively encourages and teaches drawing in galleries, but when it’s borrowed art it’s a different story, you’d be surprised by some of the stuff that happens to borrowed art.

    the other issue is that the special shows are always crowded and if you add people with pencils you up the chance that things could go wrong quickly. angry people that artist are in the way, someone tripping into a piece, etc.

    this could very well be a stipulation from the Orsay as well, many times a museum will send work away with a list of requirements as a part of the loan.

    and if it’s that big a deal for you, wait for the work to go home to the orsay and then sketch it there in a less crowded gallery.

  13. I’ve done some some sketching in museums (generally in pen and/or marker), so I’ve read a bunch of museum webpage FAQs on what they allow, and usually it looks like they’re concerned with mess or the potential for damage to the artwork, or with blocking traffic.

    The Brooklyn Museum of Art, for example, has a similar rule to the De Young: “Sketching is also permitted in most special exhibitions, but is restricted in ticketed exhibitions and crowded galleries.” There are also some interesting special rules for people who want to explicitly copy a displayed work; looks like they’re designed to make life difficult for forgers.

  14. According to the museum’s posted policies (easy to find on their website) sketching is allowed just about everywhere in the museum except in special exhibitions, which I know can get pretty crowded. Sounds like common sense crowd control to me.

    Note in the original article the author never bothers to ask the deyoung why it has this policy–he just launches into his screed. That’s some awesome journalism there.

  15. Just to put the issue in perspective, the de Young is currently showing an exhibit of impressionist paintings on loan from the Louvre. Admission is by timed ticket and both times I’ve been there a good thirty percent of the people there were college art students there as a class either sketching or writing about the pieces for assignments. It’s a fantastic opportunity for both art students and teachers to see these paintings in the flesh but they park in front of them for quite a while doing their assignments thus denying other viewers to even get close.

    If it was a class or two they’d come and go and the people there and then would deal with it. But in addition to the regular bay area colleges we have the Academy of Art University in town which has enrollment numbers around 13,000. As a member of the de Young I’m actually a little more tolerant of the situation as my special exhibition admission is included in my membership but if I had paid to see that exhibit and it was that crowded I would be pissed. It should also be noted that in the three years I’ve been a member, I’ve been to most every special exhibition all with the same timed ticket scheme and none have been half as crowed as this.

  16. What compounds the problem (and was mentioned in the original of this story in the Chronicle this morning) is the nonsensical explanation given by the DeYoung gallery guards in the special exhibits: that it somehow violates copyright.

    There are any number of reasons you might ban sketching at a show on loan from another institution (if you’ve been to one of those cattle drives recently, public safety/crowd control seems like the foremost concern), but copyright violation certainly isn’t one of them. If someone told me not to sketch because of public safety concerns, I would probably be less incensed than if I were handed some flimsy copyright bullshit. It would be nice if someone had told the guards about that, but I suspect they’re as much in the dark as anyone else, and just looking for a plausible excuse.

  17. I consider this as more a “rules of the house” thing.
    It’s their museum: I’ll follow their rules.
    As this is a wholly publicly-funded institution, though, you’d expect that there’d be some rational reason, instead of what they’ve stated as the reason.

    I mean, if a display were on loan from somewhere else, or something similar – where it’s not the museum’s own property, that is.

    But this prohibition seems to go against what the very word “muse-eum” connotes.

  18. I’m a student who takes Museum Drawing at CCSF. We are allowed to take in pastels, ink, watercolor etc to the De Young and Legion. However there are several rules we need to follow. One is that we cannot block the other patrons. And having been in the special exhibits, they are packed! There would be no place for my easel set up. Also the fine arts museums want you to purchase the catalog for the exhibit. That is the whole copyright issue.

    My class isn’t happy about not being able to draw or anything at the special exhibits but there are still the other galleries that we and the public can draw in.

    The most recent curator has more concerns that previous curators, from what I understand for drawing in the museums. Our class has been showing him that it is ok and that it will enhance patron enjoyment and will not mess up his museum to have people drawing.

  19. These policies typically have nothing to do with copyright and everything to do with crowd flow, which is why sometimes photography is fine but sketching is not. Students (and that includes anyone who is studying the piece) can sometimes spend an hour or more studying a piece, which can impact the flow when the venue is interested in exposing the art to as many individuals as they can without getting unreasonably crowded.

    If a class or an individual wants to arrange special circumstances many venues will work with them to try to place them at a time of lower crowd volume.

    Unfortunately, in our litigious age of copyright everything, asking someone who doesn’t know the reasoning behind the policy will make them think of copyright first thing, and the ranting begins…

  20. the de young has always been notoriously fusty, but after the gutting healthcare took in california under reagan — and in particular, mental institutions — no. cal has a much higher population of less stable inidividuals than most, and they somehow manage to get inside the museums. the security in bay area museums has, in my experience, been the most aggressive i’ve ever seen, perhaps as a direct result.

    and perhaps for cause. back in the early 80s a guy who used to go around dressed up as abe lincoln went into the sfmoma and marked up a couple of rothko’s with a pencil. the exhibit which had just opened was pulled (it was on loan) and the museum suffered financially for years as a result of the lost revenue.

    but copyright? seriously?

  21. Pretty sure this is just about crowds and keeping people moving. You get a timed entry ticket and built into that is an assumption that you won’t be in there all day. The audio guides are different from sketching because you stay at any given point of interest for maybe a minute.

  22. I can’t say enough bad things about the DeYoung, the total opposite of a museum like the Getty where they have a whole room just for sketching.

    I think the whole “no pens” thing in museums is absurd, too. If I want to sneak damn near anything into a museum, there’s nothing to stop me. I’ve worked in the field for 15 years, and never have I heard of a “pen in a museum accident”. Given the ease of damaging nearly any piece of artwork, you’d need to have a museum visited only by nude people who had allowed the staff to tear their fingernails out prior to entry to prevent intentional damage.

    1. To your comment Marshall, perhaps you are not aware of the situation at the Met earlier this year in which a woman who was part of an art history class in the galleries, tripped over a stanchion and plunged her pen into a very important Picasso causing a 3 inch tear in the canvas.

      Even tho we all think we will be careful and respectful, stuff happens.

      It is the museum’s responsibility to care for all the artwork in their museum especially when the galleries are very crowded are people are paying attention or are distracted by something across the room.

  23. If the De Young are already using a timed ticket entry system, it might be a good idea to allow students access to draw in teacher supervised groups at certain times of the day – such as early in the morning.

    One of the world’s largest museums of antiquities and fine art objects, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was created for the purpose of providing subjects to draw for the students of the Royal College of Art, just down the road. It’s the best way of learning to see, as you learn to draw, as you learn how the masters worked.

  24. Purposeful flashmob: All who can MUST descend with pens, pencils, crayons, pastels, charcoal, sharpies, colored pencils, chalk, whatever! GO!

  25. Inconceivable! Next thing you know, museums will prohibit photography!

    Seriously, though: This is outrageous. However, if they explained the crowd-control rationale, then it would be far less annoying. And is it that hard to have sketch/photo-friendly hours, say 2h before opening, maybe for a higher entrance fee?

  26. Sort of OT, I saw the Waterhouse posted above in an exhibition in the Netherlands 2 years ago. It was glorious.

  27. Possibly they were worried people might poke holes in the walls?

    Never been inside, but queued outside for many hours on gala opening night. I assumed it couldn’t get over crowded with the SF counter-earth quake room number limit?

  28. More piffle from folks who are OUTRAGED anytime they can’t do whatever they feel like. BoingBoing seems to attract junior anarchists the way art museums attract the mentally ill. Which is a LOT.

  29. I figured I’d pop in and clarify what the real museum policy is, since there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there, and the original article from SFGate never addressed what the sketching policy actually is.

    First off, you’re welcome to come to the museum with your pencils and sketch pad and to draw in any of our permanent collection galleries. Bring your camera, too—as long as you don’t use a flash or tripod you’re welcome to take photos of whatever you like in our permanent collections.

    With special exhibitions this gets trickier. Often times we are contractually obligated to prohibit sketching. This usually has nothing to do with copyright law, but everything to to with the contract terms dictated by the lender or lenders to a particular exhibition. The other big reason is crowd flow and control. The current Post-Impressionist show in particular has been extremely popular—we’re the only venue for this exhibition in North America and, as a result, attendance is huge. Unfortunately things like the permission to sketch in the galleries take a back seat to making sure the majority of visitors have a good experience.

    Would we love to allow sketching everywhere? Of course, and when we can, we do. Witness the recent Dale Chihuly exhibition which allowed both sketching and photography. For what it’s worth, our policy is the same as that of many major US art museums, including MoMA, LACMA, the Met, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The New Museum, and others.

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