In late 2017, a woman posted a photo on Facebook of "Venus of Willendorf," a roughly 30,000-year-old statue that is a famous depiction of women and fertility.
Facebook ruled the picture was pornographic and removed it.
The statue's home, Vienna's Natural History Museum, was not happy with what it called censorship. "An archaeological object, especially such an iconic one, should not be banned from Facebook because of 'nudity,' as no artwork should be," the museum said in a statement.
Facebook apologized, but other instances of social media platforms banning artwork followed over the years. So Vienna's tourism board is trying a different approach - showcasing museums' art on OnlyFans, a subscription-based website most closely associated with sex work. For $4.99 a month, subscribers to the tourism board's page can check out "explicit" works from four of the Austrian capital's famous museums.
In announcing the "Vienna laid bare" campaign, the tourism board said the museums and their artwork "are among the casualties of this new wave of prudishness - with nude statues and famous artworks blacklisted under social media guidelines." Those museums give people a chance to see works from artists like Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser, who "pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in art at the time," the tourism board said.
"So it hardly comes as any surprise to learn that some of their artworks fell foul of the censors over 100 years ago," the tourism board added. "And the battle against censorship still rages on: with the rise of social media, bans like these are back in headlines once again. Major social media channels like Instagram and Facebook have nudity and 'lewd' content firmly in their sights.
"That's why we decided to put the capital's world-famous 'explicit' artworks on OnlyFans."
The campaign comes after some of Vienna's museums, including the Leopold Museum and the Albertina, have run into problems posting artwork containing nudity to social media. In July, the Albertina's TikTok account was suspended and then blocked for publishing Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki's pictures. The suspension forced the museum to create a new account. In 2019, Instagram determined a painting by Peter Paul Rubens violated the platform's rules prohibiting any nudity, even if it's "artistic or creative in nature." And this year, the Leopold Museum sought to mark its 20th anniversary by producing a short video featuring Koloman Moser's 1913 painting "Liebespaar," which shows a nude couple. Facebook and Instagram rejected it as "potentially pornographic."
Helena Hartlauer, a spokeswoman for the Vienna Tourist Board, told NBC News that social media was a critical tool for museums looking to showcase their artwork while obeying social-distancing guidelines during the pandemic. She said she's worried social media policies will lead artists to self-censor their creativity so they can showcase, promote and sell their artwork online without it getting banned.
"Right now, an algorithm determines what is okay to see and what is not," Hartlauer said. "And it definitely should not determine our cultural legacy."
OnlyFans has made its own news recently over censorship. In August, the company announced it was banning "sexually explicit" content, which it said was the result of requests from the banking industry. But after blowback from a significant number of users, OnlyFans quickly scuttled the plans.
Hartlauer said the tourism board will keep the OnlyFans account beyond the "Vienna laid bare" campaign, though she told the Guardian she didn't know how the page will be updated.
"This marketing initiative of ours is not the ultimate solution for this problematic relationship between the art world and social media, but . . . we want to stand up for our values and our beliefs," she said. "Vienna has always been famous for being open-minded."