Artists challenge, force change to North Dakota Tourism's photo sharing approach

North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said the goal of the department’s photography database is to promote the state's places, people and art.

Paul Noot, a high school art teacher, standing in front of his mural in art alley in Bismarck.jpeg
Paul Noot, a high school art teacher, standing in front of his mural in art alley in Bismarck.
Special to The Forum
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BISMARCK — Complaints from artists have forced a change in how the North Dakota Tourism Division allows photographs of public art to be downloaded for free.

It was prompted in part after a Bismarck-area high school art teacher found a photo of his mural hanging in a local business without credit or payment.

Paul Noot’s mural titled “The Heart Follows the Path” was downloaded 20 times from the North Dakota Tourism Division’s website before it was removed. Four years ago, he made a massive mural of his painting in the art alley in Bismarck.

“With 20 downloads, I’m probably out $4,000. That’s bare minimum,” Noot said.

On North Dakota Tourism’s website, the credit for the mural was attributed to “North Dakota Tourism,” not Noot, which he said was disturbing.


“I am just shocked because that image was there for four years. The only reason I stumbled across it was that someone told me they saw my photo in a bank. So I went up there and I saw it and there was no credit at all," he said. "It’s such a recognizable image here, but they cropped it off all around the edges. I don’t know why they did that.

“It unveils the shady practices of North Dakota Tourism," Noot said. "I can’t believe they had this huge database where you can download these images for free. It’s got galleries, museums, wildlife, landscapes, everything is there."

North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said the goal of the department’s photography database is not "shady," as it aims to promote the state's places, people and art.

"We never had any intentions of taking credit for anybody's art," she said.

“And we’ve never allowed for commercial use, but it is available, for instance, for media. When you look at what we do as marketing the state of North Dakota, we are wanting to show all the vibrancy of our communities, the new hip places and public art that has exploded across the state. This is public art, and we promote that, and one of the ways we do that is through photography,” Otte Coleman said.

“We proudly promote and display public art statewide, and it’s one of the ways we hope visitors will experience our communities and our residents," she said. "It was with the best of intent that we had taken these photos and used these photos to promote our great state."

Another artist featured in North Dakota Tourism’s photographic database is Melissa Gordon, an artist who also has a part-time job. She painted a mural called “Sitting Bull” in Bismarck's art alley. The image is featured in the database and has been downloaded 26 times.

Gordon is not worried about the “issue of piracy” related to her art. She said it’s important for artists to take responsibility for protecting their work.


“I totally understand what the department is trying to do. I just don’t think they should have photographs as full-resolution downloads without knowing what it is going to be used for," Gordon said. "It’s a great idea, but I think a reasonable solution is to put the images out there at 72 dpi so people can see them, but they can’t print them.

“It’s really important for people to understand we’re not trying to be jerks about our work. Protect that copyright,” she said.

After the issues were brought to the North Dakota Tourism department’s attention, Otte Coleman said the agency took down all art photos from the gallery. The department will be changing the way they display works of art, she added.

“We will try to capture public art in photos with people enjoying the art. This should eliminate the problem,” Coleman said.

Noot wasn’t pleased with the department’s response, especially when movie stars like Josh Duhamel are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to promote the state. Artists in North Dakota have always had a difficult time, he said.

“No wonder creative people leave this state. We’re like second-class citizens to them, or not even third class. No one wants to pay us. Exposure doesn’t pay us. We all have bills to pay. In that same light, you should start writing articles for free,” Noot said.

“I tell my students that 1% of artists make a living off their art. I teach so I can make art," he said. "It’s a struggle. You could probably do it, but you will be a starving artist. The culture in other states is different, but it’s tough to get people into art galleries here. They either think they’re elitist or they’re not comfortable. There is a big difference even between here (Bismarck) and Fargo."

Shane Balkowitsh, a wet plate photographer in Bismarck, has three murals hanging in the city's downtown area. So far, he hasn’t found his artwork in the government agency’s database, but he’s still looking because the art isn’t categorized by name.


“The state of North Dakota is giving his art away,” Balkowitsch said of Noot's work. “Too many times artists are taken advantage of. Everyone loves art, but very seldom are people willing to reimburse artists for their work.”

Balkowitsch acknowledges that the state's website is an attempt by the government to help artists, but artists deserve credit and need money like everyone else to live, he said.

“There is nothing wrong with this site; the problem is they are not crediting artists by their name and contact information or even title or works," Balkowitsch said. "The site has good intentions and merit, it just needs to support the actual people who are making the works.

“It’s not their art, and they can’t slap their name on other people’s art,” he said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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