How Can We Use Our Art? An Investigation into the Copyright and Use Policies of The New School Art Collection

Once in a while, a team encounters a hitch during project making that opens up a new layer of investigation. That hitch, for us, came as we were gaining access to the famous Orozco murals on the 7th floor of 66 W. 12th Street. The Orozco Room, as it is called colloquially, is generally closed to the public, and we requested special access to briefly film inside. We were told to ask the security guards at the front desk to arrange for our entry.

The guards called a woman named Katherine Bailey, who is the New School staff member in charge of the guardianship of its murals. Ms. Bailey asked to speak with us.

“I wasn’t informed that you would be filming,” she said. “That’s not going to be possible. You need to acquire special rights permission to film.”

We were blindsided. Nowhere in our research had we encountered any mention that the Orozco murals could not be filmed by students for use in our own personal projects. However, we did know that for outside organizations to publish visual representation of the murals, they were required to ask permission. In the archives of Agnes de Lima, the school’s press secretary from 1940 through 1960, there are many such requests, and many of Ms. de Lima’s replies.

However, as students of the school, we felt like we had some special sort of permission to use the art that is so deliberately placed throughout campus in our work. It never occurred to us that we would be subject to the same restrictions as outsiders. The art collection is for us, a visual gift that hopefully engenders meaningful thought as we go through our studies.

Thankfully, Ms. Bailey assented to us filming, with the caveat that we would wait for permission from the school’s lawyer, Susan Sawyer, before using the film. This week, we had the chance to ask Ms. Sawyer about the restrictions regarding the use of the school’s artwork by students. “The artwork in the university’s collection is owned by the university (which is a private institution) and it is housed in private buildings that the university owns or leases,” she said.  “While the university is committed to sharing that collection with both the university community as well as the general public, the artwork in the university’s collection is privately-owned art (not public art).  For this reason, we do exercise a degree of control over the artwork – such as the times it can be viewed/building hours and filming requirements.”

Ms. Sawyer granted us permission to use the work in our film, but explained why Ms. Bailey had taken precautions. “While the university owns the tangible artwork, in many cases the artist (or his/her estate) has retained the copyright in the work.  For this reason, we can grant you and others the right to take images and use those images for academic purposes — but we cannot grant you the right to use those images beyond the educational context.” If we had been planning to release our film to the general public and try to earn money with it, we would have had to speak to the estate of José Clemente Orozco himself. The experience was an important reminder on the legal requirements placed on seemingly simple objects we as students pass by daily.