The first painting you encounter in the blockbuster traveling show Inspiring Impressionism at Seattle Art Museum this summer is not an impressionist painting. And it's not an older, "master" work—by an artist like Velázquez, Titian, or Hals—either. An exception was made to start the show with this otherwise unremarkable 1912 canvas by the little-known artist Louis Beroud because Beroud's painting, An Evening in the Louvre, directly illustrates the theme of the exhibition: artists learning from other artists, often by painting copies while standing right in front of them in galleries. In An Evening in the Louvre, a whiskered, white-haired Louvre janitor is beginning his work for the night, cleaning up after copyists in the gallery, whose easels and unfinished oil copies await the artists' return in the morning. This is part of how great artists learn, even artists who abandon tradition, the show reminds us. There's example after example of the impressionists' copies of master works in Inspiring Impressionism.
Well, SAM may support the premise of this show—but only in theory. SAM is the only stop on the exhibition's national tour, which also stops in Denver and Atlanta, that universally forbids painting in its galleries. The Stranger sent an intern, John Borges, to the museum posing as a great-artist-in-training, with paints, a palette, a drop cloth, and a traditional French easel, and he was escorted straight up to the administration offices and told what he wanted to do was impossible. "It seemed like the guard was rooting for me," Borges said afterward. But no dice.
Even as great historical European museums and many leading and smaller American museums allow painting in the galleries, SAM says it can't.
"We can't be all things to all people," Lauren Mellon, SAM's chief registrar, told me later. "Having a copyist program is very labor-intensive, and we don't have the resources to do it."
With last year's announcement by Mimi Gates that a massive influx of donations of art would catapult SAM to the status of "major museum," and given the fact that SAM still has an additional physical expansion built into its future plans in the new building it shares with Washington Mutual, will there ever be a time when SAM could accommodate copyists?
"It is not practical for this institution," Mellon said flatly.
Resistance like this makes Gary Faigin crazy. Faigin is an old-fashioned painter and artistic director of the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle. He's always trying, to no avail, to get his students in to paint at SAM—and at the Frye Art Museum, a Seattle repository for late 19th-century and early 20th-century German and Austrian painting.
"It's just an attitude thing," Faigin said. "The older museums are just more hip to the fact that this is part of the deal—it's part of your service to make this possible. The idea that it puts the art at risk, or that it blocks other visitors, or the chemical smell—well, all of that that seems reasonable if you started out feeling like you didn't need to do it. If you consider it a part of your mission, you work it out, just like all these other museums."
Both Mellon and Frye registrar Annabelle Larner said the European tradition is only practiced in a few major museums in the United States, those with extensive resources. (The Stranger's intern was bounced even more emphatically from the Frye.) But that's not really true. A quick search revealed copyist programs—programs that allow individuals into the galleries in order to copy in wet mediums—at the following museums: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, along with the ones you'd expect—the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The Art Institute of Chicago allows students of its school to copy. The High Museum of Art permits the practice for special occasions (usually for school groups)—special occasions like Inspiring Impressionism, where the show started its tour last winter. A class of students copied a Murillo from an earlier exhibition of Louvre paintings. Their copies were exhibited concurrently with Inspiring Impressionism.
When it comes to resources, a copyist program can be done on a shoestring—as at Denver, where a small portion of an education department staff member's time includes overseeing the vetting of applicants. The most extensive program, at the National Gallery, where 10 easels are maintained and loaned out, still amounts to only about a quarter of a full-time job, according to the current manager, Carol Nesemann.
On a trip to Vienna this summer, Pamela Belyea, Faigin's codirector at Gage and his wife, happened to see a copyist drop her paints to the floor in the vaunted Brueghel room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. "Nobody batted an eye, they just wiped it up," she said. "It is ridiculous how challenging it is to find an avenue for art students to copy at the Seattle Art Museum or the Frye Art Museum. As a museum, if you actually believe you're creating a community of artists, then you have to crack the door open a little."
Considering that there probably isn't a single room in an American museum as precious as that room packed with Brueghels—or very few—why are some American museums so uptight?
"That's a good question," said Portland Art Museum director of collections Donald Urquhart. He quickly added that he didn't think "uptight" was necessarily the right word—Portland Art Museum forbids copying in paint, too. So do the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty. All three institutions say they're protecting their art and their patrons.
There are risks and irritations involved in copying. Paints could splatter, rickety easels could fall into works of art, and other visitors' views could be blocked. But that's why museums control the terms of their copy programs. Along with each permit comes a long list of rules and regulations. The only universal rule is that copyists cannot use canvases the same size as their subjects—that would be forgery.
Other rules vary, but most include stipulations about remaining a certain distance from the art, using approved easels, working only during certain hours when museum traffic is light, and relocating if another visitor asks. No extra guards are deployed to watch a copyist, but regular guards know and enforce the restrictions. Copyists are only allowed to work on one painting at a time, and the object of a copyist's work is agreed upon in advance. Museums only control copyrights to works they own, so copyist programs apply to objects in the museums' own permanent collections. If SAM allowed copying, for instance, you still wouldn't be able to copy the visiting impressionists, but you could make versions of SAM's big Sargent, its Bierstadt, its Cranach, or its newly acquired John Singleton Copley.
The National Gallery has regular copyists, from the woman who polishes off copies of impressionist paintings to give to her children, to the serious hobbyist who spends a couple of years on a single Dutch painting. Mellon, SAM's registrar, knows these people because she managed the copyist program at the National Gallery before she came to SAM. Still, she says, the galleries are too small and the art turns over too regularly even in the collection galleries for a community like that to develop at SAM.
Copying, apparently, is a polarizing subject. It does tend to come down to those who see it as part of a museum's job and those who don't. Mary Suzor, director of collections management at the Cleveland Museum of Art, says it's a small but vital part of Cleveland's commitment to education. She has been at museums with copyist programs for 25 years and has never heard of a damaged artwork. "It's a program that takes a certain amount of time and energy to see through, but the people who want to be copyists are motivated for all the right reasons, and they really want to do whatever needs to be done to follow the rules," Suzor said.
It's notable that the larger museums that disallow copying are on the West Coast, where museums are younger and less tied to European traditions. They also have fewer significant works of old art. Copying may seem like a stodgy, outdated, white-guy thing to do, but forbidding it also smacks of imperialism—of a second-rate king hoarding the few treasures he has. And who's to say that being anachronistic is the same as being conservative? Seattle's most adventurous museum, the contemporary Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, does consider requests from copyists. After all, an artist in the galleries is a profound symbol: It demonstrates that a museum is part of the messy life cycle of art, not a graveyard.