Publishing, Presenting, and Exhibiting Digital Art

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The SFMOMA/Tate project to develop best practices for exhibiting and lending works of digital art arose because the technical, legal, and policy issues around lending digital art require revisiting standard museum practices. Of course it has long been common practice for cultural organizations to lend each other art works for exhibitions. Intellectual property has long been a consideration and institutions must negotiate how the loaned works will be credited and photographed or represented in exhibition advertisements and catalogs by the borrowing institution.

Cultural presenting organizations like museums or galleries are one way digital art is presented to the public, but digital artists have other venues as well. An Internet artist can mount work directly on a personal website for public view, and they may provide additional access to the work through self-initiated open online forums like RhizomeFootnote 28 or the Internet Archive. Some of these public forums, like MorpheusFootnote 29 or the CC MixterFootnote 30 for sharing music, have developed structured legal models for sharing content, but many more have not. The fact that older arts institutions are concerned about indemnification is a signal that any copyright problems inherent in a work may follow the work wherever it goes.

Zeppetelli said that the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal usually exhibits without requiring intellectual property stipulations in artist exhibition or acquisition agreements. This is in part because of the public nature of the Musée and the fact that the law already spells out the artist's rights, rights that museum does not want to abridge. This means that each time they exhibit a work, even a work in their own collection, they must contact the artist or their representative. When these works become technically unworkable, the museum goes to the artist again for a solution. It is for both legal and technical reasons that the museum goes back to the artist when a problem occurs. For his work in the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal collection, artist Gary Hill retains the master copies of all media. An agreement between the museum and artist specifies that the museum must ask the artist to exhibit or repair the work in their collection and the artist must ask the museum to exhibit the copy in his collection. This creates an intimate relationship between the museum and artist, and does much to protect the artist's continual say in how the work is treated. However, this relationship has also caused some problems because the work is constantly changing. Each time the work is exhibited or repaired, the artist makes changes. This new, changed, work becomes the work in the museum's collection. That causes problems with documentation and potentially with historical accuracy as the work the museum collected and documented is no longer the work they own. But perhaps the most important side-effect of this type of agreement is that museum does not outright own the work in their collection. Rather they own a kind of license of use, viewing rights, that extend only as far as the life of the derivative medium they purchased and that may be as little as 15 years. 15 years can accommodate a lot of exhibition time, but it is a much shorter life than we usually attribute to works being preserved in the permanent collections of museums.

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