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Art & Design

Art activists challenge museum Botticelli sketching ban

Last month, it emerged that the Victoria and Albert Museum had placed a temporary ban on sketching. The place where every art student in Britain goes to be inspired by original artworks by classicists and contemporary artists alike is trying to prohibit the use of pencils. 
Every year, galleries and museums across the country vie against each other to see who can produce the best, show-stopping tourist-trap, all star lineup of a show, and this year the V&A opted for the Renaissance painter Botticelli. Based on the classic renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli and his impact on the world of art, design and commerce, Botticelli Remained has the largest collection of original work by the artists and his workshop that has ever been in the UK at one time.But the exhibition comes with an unsavoury caveat to the usual terms of entry – no sketching allowed.
The news broke after the Guardian’s Architecture and Design critic Olly Wainwright tweeted a picture of the sign and wrote an article suggesting the "draconian" ban was due to audience control measures. The article was amended to state the policy was actually enforced as part of the museum’s loan agreements for its exhibitions. 
On Friday a group of activists calling themselves Save The Sketch staged a protest against the sketch ban by exploiting a loophole: you might not be able to draw the works of art, but there’s nothing stopping you sculpting them. The twelve-strong collective entered the exhibition with packs of clay and proceeded to sculpt representations of the artwork using wooden manikins. Little Atoms was there to watch the unfolding action.
At 11am, the collective sat down on the wooden benches in the exhibition and began to sculpt the work. At first, passersby asked what they were doing but security didn’t flinch. It was only after 30 minutes, that an attendee finally asked the artists not to make a mess and suggested that next time they come along that they asked for a stool at reception as the benches were intended for the elderly of those who find it hard to stand up for long periods of time. 
After staying in the exhibition for a couple of hours the group demanded to speak to the curators, who declined the invitation. 

Not all exhibitions are created equal 

The no-sketch rule seems to be enacted only for this specific exhibition. Across the hall and neighboring show, Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century, merely requests that visitors be “considerate while sketching”.
If the ban is about the lending of works, should the museum have even agreed to the terms? Sketching wasn’t an issue when a version of the Botticelli exhibition went on display at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin last year. A press officer at the Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin confirmed to Little Atoms that the museum did not prohibit drawing and sketching but the use of photography was forbidden, due to the terms and conditions of the loan.  
When Little Atoms asked the V&A what terms in the loan provoked the ban we were given a general statement. 
“The V&A continues to support and encourage sketching in all its seven miles of permanent galleries, as part of our mission to inspire the next generation of artists and designers. As has been the case for some time, there are sometimes specific conditions in loan agreements with lenders to temporary exhibitions, which mean we are not able to allow sketching in those exhibitions, but we work very hard to keep those to an absolute minimum. Sketching has been possible in many of our exhibitions, including Constable, Fabric of India and Shoes: Pleasure and Pain and is welcome in the current Paul Strand exhibition.”

All art is copying

The issue of reproducing original artworks runs deep in the V&A’s history. Even as far back as the 19th century, the museum was leading the charge to produce and display plaster casts of important pieces of work so art students and local communities could benefit from replicas of original art. In fact, it’s a cause so close to the museums home that they’ve made it the basis of their project at this year’s Venice Biennale. A World of Fragile Parts, curated by V&A, looks at how copies of global artifacts can be used to combat the destruction of world heritage sites.
But the irony is that most of the exhibition itself consists of artistic interpretation of Botticelli’s works. 
The Botticelli exhibition opens with two rooms full of different artist’s interoperations of the 16th century Renaissance man’s most iconic piece, the Birth of Venus’. Everything from a Bulgari shop front windows to a Dolce and Gabbana suit is on display. Even the wall text proudly boasts how the artists work has been “reproduced in every medium from high fashion to street art.” and household names such as Andy Warhol and Williams Morris fawn over the Italian painter’s iconic work in the other rooms. 
The use of artists’ interpretations might have something to do with the original never being allowed to leave to Uffizi gallery in Italy, where it lives, meaning the closest a British audience can ever hope of getting, without hoping on a flight, is an artistic interpretation or reproduction. 
But even the original Birth of Venus itself was inspired by another artwork. The woman posing on the sea shell is thought to have been inspired by Venus de' Medici from the Medici collection, owned by the guy who commissioned the Botticelli masterpiece, which no doubt Botticelli would have had access to as a young artist. The whole exhibition is about artists using other artwork as inspiration.
Outside the exhibition and photographing and drawing is rife in the rest of the museum. 
Clive Allcorn, 56, was photographing bits of the museum’s architecture when I told him that drawing wasn’t allowed in parts of the museum. “To be honest – I hate it. The photographs are for my personal use.” 
So why is the V&A working against the needs of its visitors? Sketching and drawing original artworks is an integral part of any art student’s education. It’s the reason why you see hoards of back-packed art students lugging materials round galleries. There’s even a resource for teachers on the V&A website encouraging students to draw in the galleries. Even if the gallery had to negotiate with the terms of a loan, the priority should always be the needs of its visitors. Without them, the V&A would just be an empty shell. 
Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.