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Photo ban at Recital Centre open day a disgrace

Despite hosting an “open day” to show-off their new government-funded building, the Melbourne Recital Centre seemed far more interested in hassling photographers.

I like taking photos. I like architecture. So when I saw that the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and Melbourne Recital Centre were jointly hosting an open day to show-off their brand new landmark buildings, I thought that this was an opportunity not to be missed.

What an error of judgement that turned out to be.

The brand new Melbourne Theatre Company building at dusk.

The MTC and Recital Centre buildings were designed by leading Melbourne architect Ian McDougall, of AshtonRaggatt McDougall. Located in Melbourne’s famous Southbank ‘arts precinct’ and surrounded by noisy trams, the buildings were designed for both architectural and engineering excellence. Both buildings have been heavily featured in the press; with a recent story appearing on ABC1‘s Catalyst programme as well as numerous newspaper articles and live radio broadcasts.

Unfortunately, when I visited the Melbourne Theatre Company and moreso the Melbourne Recital Centre, the reception was far from welcoming.

The Sumner Theatre in the Melbourne Theatre Company building

Before I’d even entered the MTC’s Sumner Theatre, I was told by a member of staff that photography was prohibited. When I queried this, she told me “It’s just the rules” but then went on to explain that they didn’t want people taking photos of the artworks.

Fair enough, the artworks are protected by copyright laws and I don’t wish to challenge that.

My interest is in the architecture. Yet when I explained this, she was still adamant that I was not to take any photos. After a brief discussion, she consulted her manager who agreed that photography was permitted in the theatres, but not of the artworks.

I felt that was a fair compromise and a sensible outcome, so I went in and took some photos of the beautiful theatre.

It was once I’d left the Melbourne Theatre Company and went next door to the Melbourne Recital Hall that events took a dive.

The front window of the Melbourne Recital Centre

For I’d barely taken one shot of the foyer, before I was hastily approached by a woman who told me photography was banned. When I queried this, I got the same answer as before: “Those are  just the rules”. Informing her of the management decision at the MTC, she then consulted a more senior staff member who also told me “It’s just the rules”.

Finding it somewhat incredible that an arts organisation would invite people into their landmark buildings, only to “ban” photography, I again asked her what the specific reason was. She blamed the architect, the artists, and management before running out of excuses. So I asked her to go and see her manager to sort this matter out properly.

Whilst waiting for her to return, I noticed another man, with an even bigger camera than mine, taking interior shots with the aid of a tripod. So I asked the first woman why it was that he was permitted to take photos and I was not. She guessed (but was unsure) that he might be from the media. I pointed out the absurdity of this approach. Surely, aren’t his photos of the same building, so what’s the difference between he and I?

The interior of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre

As we stood there discussing matters, I saw numerous people taking photos of the building with their tiny point-and-shoot cameras. None of these people were being approached as I’d been. I queried this also, and was told “It’s because they’re harder to catch”. I wondered if it was because I had a dSLR camera that I was approached. Either way, their logic is flawed.

I should say that the two staff members I spoke to were very polite and courteous. And I do realise that they were simply doing their job, as instructed. My gripe is with the management of the Melbourne Recital Centre.

According to Arts Victoria, $128 million of taxypayer’s money was jointly  invested in the construction of the Melbourne Theatre Company and Melbourne Recital Centre buildings. These are public buildings, constructed on Crown land and built for public enjoyment. There’s no law prohibiting photography of public buildings. My photography was with in the context of an ‘open day’, where members of the public were supposed to come and enjoy the new theatres.

For me, the biggest issue of all was the realisation that it was an arts organisation that was persecuting photographers. Of all sectors of society, wouldn’t you expect an arts organisation to be most sympathetic towards artistic pursuits?

Having my enjoyment of the occasion ruined, I was again approached by a staff member who informed me that MRC management had made a sudden change of policy, and that I was now free to photograph the building.

Foyer space and front window at the Melbourne Recital Centre

It can only be concluded from this absurdity that the initial intervention was an utter waste of time. They’d succeeded in completely ruining my experience, and for what purpose?

Amazingly, I was pestered by two more staff members before I left the venue in disgust (having taken the photos that I wanted).

In a liberal democracy such as Australia, I am astounded that I should be treated by a government-owned arts organisation in such a manner. The Melbourne Recital Centre management need to think very carefully about what it is that their organisation stands for.

I have no problem with the Recital Centre wanting to protect the intellectual property of their artists. That’s fair enough, and I respect that. But I don’t respect their attitude towards photography of the public-access parts of their government-funded facilities on an ‘Open Day’. I don’t respect the very selective enforcement of their “policy”, either.

I will be taking this matter up with the Melbourne Recital Centre. If they so respond, I will publish their responses on The Grapevine.



14 responses to “Photo ban at Recital Centre open day a disgrace”

On 15 February 2009, Michael Blamey wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Great pics – I didn’t get inside – too long to wait. Obviously the organisers underestimated the level of interest. I’m amazed by the reaction to your photography but maybe I shouldn’t be. Looks like you’ve cleared it up though. Well done.

On 15 February 2009, Andrew wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Your reasoning is sound but you were too polite. Sometimes there are only two words to say in such situations. One starts with F and the other with O.

And I doubt the organisers underestimated interest. It has been the same for so many public buildings. They will be very pleased with the media photos of queues.

Pretty special building though.

On 15 February 2009, deb wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Hi there, Don’t mean to be hooked on technicalities but you said “the artworks are protected by copyright laws and I don’t wish to challenge that”… but isn’t architecture also subject to copyright? Nonetheless, what a crazy situation you found yourself in! PS I loved your blog about brutalist architechure in Melbourne.

On 16 February 2009, Adam Dimech wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Hi Deb, that’s a very good question, so thanks for asking.

Section 66 of the Commonwealth Copyright Act 1968 states the following:

“The copyright in a building or a model of a building is not infringed by the making of a painting, drawing, engraving or photograph of the building or model or by the inclusion of the building or model in a cinematograph film or in a television broadcast.”

So in short, the architecture is not protected by copyright insofar as there exists any potential for me to breach that by taking photographs.

Andrew Nemeth’s website provides more details here.

On 16 February 2009, woowoowoo wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

While in Sydney recently, I had a day off to wander and found myself (with DSLR) at the Art Gallery of NSW. I half expected to be stopped at any moment, but went in to have a look around. I saw a piece of sculpture that just cried out for a photo but there was no discreet way of doing this, so I asked an attendant – the reply was amazing: “You are free to take personal photos of any artwork owned by the NSW Government, but please, no flash”. There were signs prohibiting photos in a small room containing an exhibition on loan from Victoria, but the rest of the place seemed to be mostly up for grabs.

Very refreshing.

On 17 February 2009, Ian Gillies wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I felt strongly about this too. We Australians like to think we have a relaxed outlook, not too much awed by authority, perhaps an inheritance of our convict origins. Increasingly, we seem more descended from the jailers who came along for the fun. “You can’t do that” is an eagerly repeated refrain heard more and more.

This rule diminishes that sense in me that Melbournians have traditionally had, pride in the public enterprises of their ‘Marvellous’ town. It expresses contempt for ordinary people and denies them participation in a sense of ownership.

Furthermore, the rule seems self-defeating. I would have thought that allowing images of the hall to fly around cyberspace would only enhance its reputation and entice more people to visit it.

On 22 February 2009, David Gilliver wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I visited Parliament House in Canberra a couple of years ago with a friend. I visited on a Sunday when Parliament was not sitting.

I was rather astonished by their photography policy.

I had my backpack full of camera gear, with lenses, filters, memory cards etc. I expected to be hassled when I put it through the X-ray machine but I wasn’t. I had my camera around my neck and none of the security guards were fazed.

We then wandered around the building itself, expecting to be hassled by attendants everywhere I went. Sure enough, when we walked into the Senate, an attendant saw our cameras and came hurrying over. To my utter astonishment she had come over to explain we were welcome to take photos inside the empty chamber. So we did.

For the rest of the visit, we wandered everywhere, took photos of everything we could see (including artworks) and we had a thoroughly pleasant time.

A lot of the clampdown on photography seems to be some misplaced fear of terrorism. It still amazes me that I can walk into shopping centres and office buildings with a camera and get hassled, but if I step into our Federal Parliament I am welcomed with open arms.

On 9 March 2009, Belle wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I went on the open day and had the same thing. Told by one member of staff that no photography was allowed and then permitted by another. I asked them what was going on and the girl I spoke to was extremely polite about it.
Apparently it was a miscommunication between ‘upstairs and downstairs’. She also told me that the whole open day concept confused the centre’s policy on photography for performances. Apparently no photography of the performances are allowed to take place at any time and on open day there were performances throughout the foyers. If a performance was in the shot I was taking then it wasn’t permitted. It was all very confusing but she was very nice about it.
I could hardly get angry at her as it sounded like she was doing what she was told. -B

On 13 March 2009, John wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Actually there is no hard & fast law on photographing artworks either. You really can challenge that one too. The artist has copyright of images of their work, and in effect the making of money from those images. But many galleries allow people to take images – it’s good for the artist’s profile! – so long as they don’t use a flash which can potentially affect works on paper.

On 13 March 2009, John wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I forgot to say your pix are beautiful Adam!

On 23 March 2009, Glenn Eaton wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Fantastic shots. I am glad that you persevered.

A lot of guards seem to like exerting their authority, but as you pointed out; it’s a public building paid with our taxes. The public have every right to photograph.


On 4 June 2009, Georgia wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

The Opera House is trying to stop people using photographs they have taken on it to advertise their products. Do you think they have the legal right to do that?

On 4 June 2009, Adam Dimech wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I am not a lawyer and this doesn’t constitute legal advice. But according to Regulation 4B of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority Act (1998) (NSW), a person must not “use any audio, loudspeaker or broadcasting equipment or camera (whether photographic, cinematic or video), for a commercial purpose”.

On 16 August 2009, Keith wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Yes, nice photographs of the centres.

I think the National Gallery of Victoria bans photography of artworks. But who can prove commercial use over personal use in the case of the photographer?…The law seems very ill-defined in practise. The commercial imperative does seem more important than public amenity.

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