The National Portrait Gallery’s ethical dilemma

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Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) by Jeff Koons
Wikimedia Commons

Which is worse: accepting donations from a family linked to the manufacture of addictive drugs, or putting on an exhibition about an alleged paedophile? Its an unenviable ethical dilemma, but one which the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London has managed to become uncomfortably intimate with over the past year. It didnt take the NPG and the Sackler Trust long to decide that, amid the opioid crisis in the US, it would be politic not to proceed with a planned £1m donation. But the gallery had little hesitation in exhibiting Michael Jackson: On the Wall last year, despite the well-known allegations concerning the singers alleged sexual interest in children. Nicholas Cullinan, the NPGs director (and the shows curator), claimed it was a blockbuster but visitor numbers say otherwise—just over 82,000 bought tickets, compared with 136,000 for the NPGs Cézanne Portraits.

On the Wall opened at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn amid the fresh controversy sparked by the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, which chronicles, in raw detail, the claims of Wade Robson and James Safechuck that Jackson abused them. In response, the Bundeskunsthalle said it will address the allegations with new text at the beginning of the exhibition. It also claimed the exhibition doesnt celebrate Jackson himself, but anyone who saw it in London will know it was unapologetically celebratory—a tacky pageant of Jackson eulogy masquerading as a serious exhibition, the sort of show that might appeal to the culturati at Frieze art fair if it had price tags. You could even buy Jackson hats in the gift shop. Assessing Jacksons impact on art might have been a valid curatorial exercise had it been done “warts and all”.

But On the Wall was created in collaboration with the Jackson Estate—a vigorous defender of his legacy. How can any exhibition hope to be intellectually rigorous in such circumstances? The NPGs trustees must be relieved their exhibition finished before the documentary aired.

Art in the public domain

Article 14 of the new EU Directive on Copyright and Related Rights deserves to be cheered by art historians. By strengthening the law to protect artworks that are in the public domain—that is, out of copyright—the directive will allow art historians and educators to reproduce images without asking the permission of the museum that owns the work, and without paying the often eye-watering fees. Publishing art historical books will once again become viable for all, not just for those with significant funds.

Until now, museums have relied on copyright to restrict the circulation of images and to sell licenses tied to specific uses and publications. Take the copyright away and selling image licences beRead More – Source

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