Keep it free: National Gallery of Art (US) creates open access policy

Leonardo da Vinci's "Ginevra de' Benci," (c. 1474/1478) is the only portrait by da Vinci located in the Western Hemisphere. Now the public can download Ginerva and enjoy her no matter where they are in the world.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci,” (c. 1474/1478) is the only portrait by da Vinci located in the Western Hemisphere. Now the public can download Ginevra and enjoy her no matter where they are in the world. 


In March 2012, the United States’ National Gallery of Art created an open access policy which provided online visitors the the chance to download high resolution images of their collections which fall into the public domain: 22,988 images to date. And yes, these beautiful images aren’t ridden with watermarks, and are available for you to do what you please to do with them. NGA joins the likes of the US based Walters Art Museum and Yale University, who also serve as fabulous examples of OpenGLAMs in their releasing of public domain artwork images for the world to appreciate and use.


Yes, we’re a bit behind on the times, but that won’t be our legacy. 

For some reason, it didn’t pop up on our radar until this week. I frantically contacted staff at the NGA, and was put in touch with Alan Newman, Chief of the Division of Imaging & Visual Services. He expressed the organizations deep interest in making their collections more accessible to the public. “A goal we have is to see our public domain images used ubiquitously. By offering free self-serve high-quality authoritative images we hope to flush all the bad legacy images out of the culture.” That legacy is one that haunts most GLAMs, who have to cope with countless poor quality reproductions of their mainly public domain artworks being used on the internet websites as diverse as Wikipedia, Pinterest, and Cafe Press. By releasing high resolution public domain images for free download, and promoting that access, GLAMs can avoid this plague of “bad legacy images.”

Release the bots

“Of course, we would love to see Wikipedia, Wikimedia and any and all channels using our images,” says Alan. This invites the inevitable mass upload that Wikimedia’s volunteers are known for: using bots to download high res openly licensed images from websites, and uploading the images, and related metadata and attribution, to Wikimedia’s repository of free media, Commons. Those files will then be able to be placed in thousands of Wikipedia articles in hundreds of languages, which will be viewed by millions of people around the world. They’ll also have a chance to download those images. Talk about a legacy.

What the future holds

By 2014, NGA intends to have their NGA Images website provide the public free access to over 45,000 public domain images. This expansion will include the 2013 digitization of the Index of American Design, which features almost 18,000 watercolors about American arts and crafts. These watercolors were created by the Federal Art Project (FAP) and display arts and crafts from the 19th century and before. These images are prime real estate for release: they were created by artists on behalf of the federal government, making them naturally public domain. NGA also hopes to participate in repository level sharing projects, as they did with the Museum Data Exchange, which allow more access to collections and collection information on an GLAM to GLAM level.

I encourage you to try your hand at downloading a favorite treasure from the NGA. The museums most requested images feature works by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Rembrandt van Rijn. You can also have fun browsing the latest images added to the website. Appreciate, enjoy, and share.