Often when people visit museums, they leave wishing they could see a certain piece of art every day. Yale University's art museums are making that easier.
Want Van Gogh's "The Night Cafe," owned by Yale University Art Gallery, as your desktop wallpaper? Download a high-res TIFF at artgallery.yale.edu. Want to post on your blog that J.M.W. Turner you saw at Yale Center for British Art? Download a TIFF at britishart.yale.edu.
On those websites, anyone is welcome to download public-domain artworks free of charge and use them any way they want, even if that usage is for-profit, such as the publication of a book.
The New Haven art spaces, as well as the campus' Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, are at the forefront of a growing museum trend to digitize public-domain artworks in their collections and make them available for free downloading online. This reverses a traditional practice — still in place at most museums — of charging fees for rights and reproductions and releasing images only to those who pay the fees.
"We want to let creative artists know they can use a wealth of art in the collection without infringement of copyright," said Matthew Hargraves, YCBA's chief curator of the art collections and head of collections information and access. "The art is also available to the general public. If someone comes to the museum and sees a work they really like, they can go online and print it out and hang it on their wall."
Project Began In 2011
The museums began digitizing and uploading artworks in 2011. Last month, YCBA added 22,000 more images to its online archive, bringing the total number of images to 69,000. YUAG, whose 150,000-piece collection includes about 76,000 public-domain items, has posted 94,000 images.
"This whole open-access thing has taken wing. More museums are doing it," said John ffrench, director of visual resources at YUAG. "A lot of museum directors are saying, why aren't we doing it?"
To access artworks, go to britishart.yale.edu or artgallery.yale.edu click on the "Collections" link and search for an image to find out if it is in the public domain. If it is, a few clicks will show a large downloadable image. Rights and reproductions rules still apply to works still under copyright.
Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, YCBA's collections data manager, said many artworks have multiple images online, for example, both framed and unframed, or a sculpture shot from various angles. This, too, she said, is a trend. "Scholars are keen to see the painting in the frame," she said.
Hargraves said a goal in the future is to create images of sculptures and other 3-D artworks that could be printed out on a 3-D printer.
Melissa Fournier, YCBA's manager of imaging services and intellectual property, said people began questioning rights and reproductions practices around the turn of the century.
"If a work of art is in the public domain, why is it so difficult to reproduce it, to obtain an image of it? A lot of questions were swirling around that," Fournier said.
'A False Economy'
Hargraves and ffrench say open-access is fueled by a desire to get artwork seen by a lot of people and by research suggesting that processing rights requests spends more in staffing and freelance photography costs than it takes in rights fees. Hargraves called it "a false economy."
A detailed study conducted by Simon Tanner in Great Britain in 2004 acknowledged that "crediting and promoting the host museum and honoring the artist and their work are the non-negotiable and noble goals of art museums" while nonetheless concluding that "a museum does not carry out image creation or rights and reproduction activity because of its profitability." (To see the entire study, visit
Another issue is scholarly usage, ffrench said. "It actually was hurting and penalizing the scholars. They were having to pay heavy fees to get these images," he said.
So far, only a handful of galleries nationwide offer unrestricted public-domain open access. In addition to Yale, these include the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Walters in Baltimore, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Among Connecticut art museums, Wesleyan University's Davison Art Center has joined Yale in implementing open access.
Rob Lancefield, the manager of museum information services and registrar of collections at Davison, said the majority of the museum's 24,000 pieces are in the public domain and they are gradually going online. Wesleyan started the project in 2012.
"It was the right thing to do in regard to our mission," Lancefield said. "We exist to support education, firstly here on campus and beyond that, in the wider world." (Visit to browse the Davison's open-access archive, which currently has about 3,800 items.)
Advantages To Open Access
Yale is active with Digital Library Federation, a 139-member international museum consortium, the American Art Collaborative, a 14-museum collaborative whose ultimate goal is linked open data and open access across all member museums, and the Museum Computer Network, a 450-member collaborative supporting technological applications in the museum industry.
Eric Longo of MCN said the open-access trend is an attempt to meet audiences where they are.
"In today's world, what is at the tip of our fingertips? It's smartphones. That's where we live," Longo said. "To ignore that would be kind of going backwards."
Bethany Nowviskie of Digital Library Federation said a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," influenced thought for decades. The essay argued that reproducing artworks diminished the aura of specialness of the original artworks.
"The real answer that museums are giving out now is, no it does not," she said.
She said open art sharing serves the public good and the Internet makes it easy. “We are long past the days in which museums and libraries felt that locking down content was the way to keep it special and encourage in-person visitation,” she said. “We feel that [open access] enhances people’s appreciation for original works.”
Editor's note: This story has been amended from a previous version to correct the spelling of Matthew Hargraves' name.