Most people on Earth have not been to The Louvre. Millions certainly have, but not most, not by a long shot. Neither have they been to The Hermitage, The Prado, or The Tate. But a recent move by the famedMetropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is having the effect of opening opportunities that, while far from ideal, are also fabulously valuable to all of those who simply cannot expect to travel the globe just to see paintings and sculpture.
A recent decision my Museum leadership has put more than 375,000 works of art from the Met collection online, for free, in high resolution. Visitors not only can browse these works from anywhere they can access the internet, but they are also free to download digital copies of these works, remix, reuse, or otherwise modify them to their heart’s content. The Met has decided to post these works under a Creative Commons license.
If news from the traditional art world could be characterized as celestial events, this would be a supernova.
It’s tricky to talk about unlimited access to intellectual property. Artists and their families have a right to earn appropriate payments for creative works, and the institutions that make those creative works possible in the first place also have a right to exercise limits on access. Supply affects demand, naturally, and endless supply diminishes the potential for vital monetization, a process that’s essential for the continued creation of art.
That said, intellectual property that exists behind endlessly refracted paywalls and other barriers becomes a dangerous threat against a culture’s potential to grow. It’s only with the free flow of ideas that a culture has any hope of evolving, innovating, or exploring. Where ideas have value that must be respected, they must also have velocity. An idea impeded from movement through space is an idea stripped of its great genesis spark.
The Met’s decision makes a statement with vast implications. By opening its archives to the public, it dares others to do the same. It demands involvement in the act of cultural preservation and the even more important job of cultural self-examination. We shouldn’t be naive: there are massively complex calculations that inevitably took place behind the scenes, from figuring out how big donors might regard this largess to figuring out how this will affect physical foot traffic to how it will affect revenue- generating sales in the gift shops. But most of all, it’s now possible for students from Kansas to Kuala Lumpur to consider artwork obscure and extraordinary that had been all but impossible to consider before the online catalogue appeared. Consuming creative work through the glowing face of a screen, a internet visitor is likely to get only a pale approximation he or she might by standing in front artwork in real space (an experience that everyone should do from time to time), but compared to what was possible before, this is a moment to celebrate.