Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The de Young Museum's No Sketch policy

The SF Chronicle ran a story about a shortsighted policy at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. The de Young Museum prohibits visitors from sketching when they are in the "special exhibits" such as the current exhibit - "Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond. " Click here to see the SF Chronicle article - http://bit.ly/h1fWqs.

This policy stifles artistic development and is counter to the perception of San Francisco being a cultural haven and friendly to artists.

As all artists know, drawing is not simply an exercise in rote copying. Drawing is about seeing. I always sketch when I go to museums, so that I can really SEE what the artist did when he/she executed an artwork. Drawing the artwork prevents me from glancing over details that I need to really see. Drawing slows down your gaze so that you can really see. Further, many artists gain inspiration from studying the works of masters that they admire. The best way to really study a work is to sketch it.

I have sketched at the some of the world's most revered museums: the Louvre, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Getty, London's National Portrait Gallery, and of course, the Musee d'Orsay. It is ironic that the artworks now off limits to sketching at the de Young can be freely sketched once the artworks return to their home at the Musee d'Orsay.

I have been to special exhibits at these museums, and not one of them prohibited sketching. I sketched Velázquez and Titian masterpieces at crowded special exhibits in London's National Gallery, and not one guard told me it was prohibited. I sketched from several Michelangelo drawings at a special exhibit at the British Museum, and was never told it was off limits.

I do not believe that the de Young is a world class museum, and unlike the world class museums, they discourage this time honored practice. They are all out for the revenue generated by the tape recorded guided tours. If an artist wants to sketch from the pieces in this exhibit, he will have to go to Paris, if he can afford it. Some would argue you could study a reproduction, but there are subtle details in the actual artwork that you would not be able to perceive in a reproduction.

Above are examples of sketches that I did at the Getty, Louvre, and the Musee d'Orsay several years ago.

PS the SF MOMA, which I consider to be a very fine museum, encourages sketching (in pencil) in its galleries. I enjoyed participating in some of their sketch Friday events a couple of years ago. I have never been prohibited or discouraged from standing in front of a work (even in special exhibitions) and sketching. Thank You SF MOMA.


  1. We had the same problem at the Phoenix Art Museum, and they were pretty darned rude about it too.

  2. Thank you for the warning. I sometimes go to Phoenix to visit friends, so I'll know to ask before I sketch.