Why I’m Not Opposed to the MoMA Admission Policy

As everyone knows by now, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has re-opened on 53rd St. in Manhattan in a new building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. One of the most shocking revelations, in addition to the overwhelming interior spaciousness of the central atrium and some of the galleries, is the $20 entry fee for individuals. I can’t think of anyone outside the MoMA management who has defended the record setting price of museum admission.

Robert Rosenblum, quoted over at Forward Retreat, makes the point that the stiff ticket price “disenfranchises” the majority of the population. Setting aside the fact that we’re not talking about voting but visiting an art museum, there is a legitimate concern here about putting obstacles in the way of those who would benefit from exposure to an extraordinary collection of art held “in the public trust”. (Sarah Hromack at Forward Retreat shares Rosenblum’s sentiments. But Tyler Green, as he’s wont to do, wildly simplifies and exaggerates her post by suggesting it’s simply about the money.)

Rosenblum may not be a card-carrying socialist, but as a knee-jerk Marxist with an aversion to joining groups, I’m about as close as you can get to being one. In spite of my commitment to the redistribution of resources so that everyone’s basic needs are met, I’m not opposed to MoMA’s admission policy.

Let me start with the pedestrian pragmatic aspects of the matter. Twenty dollars is a lot to pay to get into any museum. But if access to the collection means that much to you and you live in, or a reasonable distance from, Manhattan, I would assume it’s not unlikely that you’d visit every 3 months or so. Given that membership for individuals is only $75 (completely tax-deductible), you would end up paying less than $20, get 10-20% discounts on books, catalogs, etc., and you’d have at least 4 free admissions to screenings of both historic and contemporary films projected under the best viewing conditions in Manhattan. (Anyone who pays $10.25 and suffers the out-of-focus images at the Angelika viewed from uncomfortable seats with poor views of the screen and subway trains rumbling underneath every 10 minutes can more than appreciate the difference.)

Keep in mind that children 16 or younger get in free if they’re accompanied by an adult. Students pay only $12. And it’s still free to everyone on Fridays from 4:00 – 8:00 PM.

MoMA has a discounted membership rate of $60 for those living more than 150 miles outside NYC, and $50 memberships for students. Both of these are listed on the website. What’s not listed is the $20 membership for artists. (I’ve heard about this from friends but have not yet confirmed it.)

I don’t know what the policy is for school groups, but I would certainly advocate free admission for students accompanied by a teacher.

I know that sounds like a commercial. No…I don’t nor have I ever worked for MoMA or any of its affiliates. Actually, my reasons for not objecting to the admissions policy go well beyond the ticket price. Here comes the politically incorrect side of my argument. If the $20 admission fee results in only modest attendance, that’s fine with me. I’ve argued repeatedly (and much to the surprise of my colleagues) against what I take to be an uncritical and simplistic application of “democracy” with respect to art. The jingoism of public broadcasting and fund raisers who claim “the arts are for everyone” misses an important (and unpopular) point.

A real encounter and meaningful engagement with art is not a trivial matter. It takes preparation, care, thoughtfulness, and experience. To get anything out of it, you have to “take it seriously”, and that takes time and space.

So I claim the arts are for everyone willing to invest what it takes to have their everyday assumptions and expectations challenged and changed. Those who are simply looking for a comfortable and carefree way to spend an afternoon are better off spending their time and money at the mall.

6 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Opposed to the MoMA Admission Policy

  1. As one of the aforementioned *colleagues*, I’d like to add my 2 cents to this excellent discussion (which rhetorical expense would leave me with only 19.98 remaining in my collegial wallet to be able to afford to see the GREAT NEW MOMA BUILDING DESIGNED BY YOSHIO TANIGASHI.) I agree with you, Tim, about the relative nature of the price increase when set against the myriad discounts made available to museum visitors. I also agree with you when you say that to engage with art seriously one must take that approach seriously. But I would also say that, for me, art doesn’t always work on schedule. Respecting your above political-identity self-disclosure, I’ll offer that I consider myself an unapologetic knee-jerk romantic, and I believe that some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had with art (not only visiual art, but drama, music, dance, literature, etc.) have been, at times, serendipitous. During high school we were given free student passes to the Shubert Theater in Boston. A pal and I attended a perfomance of Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS. I mean, LOVE LETTERS for gosh sakes. I was a young guy from the inner-city. Young guys from the inner-city didn’t attend plays, especially plays called LOVE LETTERS! But there I was, sitting in that lovely theater, velvet seats and crimson drapes and guilded columns and an actress and an actor seated onstage at big desks, reading from a life’s worth of romantic dispatches. In those letters people were born, went to school, fell in love, left school, fell out of love, married people they shouldn’t have married, and then fell in love with the people they should have, again; and then died. Later I saw Katheleen Turner in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (a somewhat different kind of emotional experience for a young man). In college, during the frozen winter months when you had to smoke with mittens on, we would skip classes and hang out in downtown Boston and use student passes to enter the Museum of Fine Arts. There I got to see those hollow core doors that de Kooning had used to paint his garrish women. Here’s a sad truth: I had never heard of de Kooning before that. Was that serendipity or just dumb truancy or both? Now, Tim, you are an intimidatingly rigorous logician, and I know I’ve left myself wide open for a good old fashioned Chicago ass-kicking, especially because you had already mentioned school discounts and other educational offers made by MoMA. But could we extend the generousity perhaps and have a *pay what you wish day*, say, one day a week, maybe Thursday, maybe on a day set up by a school or an interested group? Twenty dollars seems to send more the message of who’s invited and who’s uninvited to participate in the collection. Twenty dollars is like telling folks that the elitists are at it again. Who among those young men and women who might have had a serenditpitous MoMA moment might have already made their minds up to play hooky not from school on that cold winter day but rather from the museum itself? (I wish I had more time, I just love telling alegorical stories about my youth and spouting my opinions, but I’ve got to run.)

  2. It never occurred to me that romanticism and (knee-jerk) marxism were incompatible, so I embrace you, Joe, as a like-minded romantic. (I would, however, distance myself from the logical appellation. Let’s just say I tend to be attentive to details.)

    My own upbringing and socialization made nearly all encounters with art serendipitous. The exceptions may have been a trio of creative, quirky, and (thus) marginalized high school teachers who took me under their dusty wings and taught me the pleasures of acting, literature, philosophy, and art. It didn’t keep me out of trouble, but it did make a lasting impression on a naive young man.

    The stiff admission fee at MoMA does indeed send a strong signal — the right signal, it seems to me — that there are some places left that provide an opportunity to, at least, imagine what it might be to experience something as having intrinsic value, as I’m sure you did when watching two committed actors constructing a moving narrative through “love letters”.

    Fortunately, you can have it all, Joe. You may have missed one little detail in my original post. MoMA does open its doors for free on Fridays from 4-8. And there’s nothing better than a museum after dark.

  3. So then come and let us embrace one another as romantics (just watch those knee-jerks, please) and we shall agree to agree in the midst of all this disagreement. For the record, I did not, actually, miss your mention of MoMA’s Free Fridays. And though I fall right in line with your aesthetic regarding museums after dark, I still think the angels of serendipity stand a better chance of working their magic not from 4-8 PM on Friday, but perhaps, as I wrote above, on a FULL free day (not a Friday, maybe a Thursday or Wednesday, a day when it might seem serendipity has missed the subway) for those who take the initiative to seek out such generosity, and here I’m referring not only to students playing hooky but to ANYONE who feels he or she or they can not afford the twenty bucks, but still feels that human hunger to experience something as having intrinsic value.

    There’s an anecdote about Yeats, who never stopped caring about the poor of his Ireland. The story, blurred somewhat in my memory (I’m sure someone out in Blogland knows the actual facts), runs thus: Yeats heard that there was to be built a municipal building, a building whose funds had been reallocated from their original intention—a public library, a FREE public library. The politicians moaned that it was too expensive to have a free library, and besides, they sniveled (cribbing unknowingly from Eliot), the poor of Ireland don’t want books; they want beer not Shakespeare. When Yeats caught wind of this, he made a public appeal of legendary proportion, pitching what I believe to be the first FEILD OF DREAMS argument in literary history, proclaiming that the folks of Ireland will never know Shakespeare if you don’t allow them to FIND Shakespeare. He exhorted them to, for the sake of Ireland, forget the money, build the library, open it to the public . . . and they will come.

    When Emerson was asked why he fled to Walden Pond, he explained that he felt alienated from his townspeople, explaining that he thought they were too obsessed with money and not enough with their spirits. He said (perhaps apocryphal, but nevertheless) that, one day, he tossed a pile of silver coins onto the street in front of some of them, along with a pile of books, and then stepped back and offered them their pick. Of course, they all grabbed the money. Emerson wasn’t surprised, the pragmatist he was, understood everyone’s need for things of value, but lamented the impulse nevertheless, saying, I offered them gold and they only took silver. Tim, maybe you and Emerson and Yeats, all men of your times, are actually asking the same question of your culture: How do we honor and protect, and yet make available to all, those artifacts we consider to be have intrinsic value?

  4. What ever happened to the idea that art affects the way people (even us ordinary people) look at and understand what is happening to themselves, the people around them, their politics, the world? You don’t need to have an MFA to experience a piece of art, to think, to “take it seriously.”

    Between the competing demands on my pocketbook and my time, people like me, and there are a lot of us, won’t get a chance to experience what is a cultural and public good. From a practical standpoint(something that seems to be lacking in your argument), by the time I make it home from work (by 5:30), put my kids to bed (maybe by 7pm on a good day), and make it back downtown on a free admission day, well…the place is closed. When the transaction costs of making it to the museum in this 4 hour time slot are so high, can I honestly accept it as “free”?

    This decision to raise the entry fee sends a strong message when there were other options available- like charging a lower price for general admission while having entry fees for individual exhibits. That way, people still have access to the collection and can pick and choose admission to special exhibits. Why not borrow from another successful business model and charge more for refreshments? At least I can eat at home before coming- I can’t exactly view Matisse Picasso in my living room. If MoMA really wanted to find a solution to their money problems AND have the least impact on open access to the museum, they would have been much more creative at differentiating costs and drawing people in. Even their director admitted that there was no science to choosing a $20 price tag- it just FELT right. No wonder they’re in the shit.

    It seems that if I called you an elitist pig you might take it as a complement. So instead, maybe I should congratulate you for having pulled yourself out from under your upbringing to become an ‘enlightened’ intellectual- one of the few worthy of experiencing art in a meaningful way. This pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps intellectualism is just plain ugly.

    And as for your comment that those who can’t afford to pay the $20 entry fee are better off at the mall- you think a lot of yourself.

    Oooo, you make me so mad.

  5. Professor,

    Even though I’ve immersed myself in the university culture, and trained my mind on all things academic, I’ve had the most difficult time trying to appreciate art. Creeping in the back door to higher education from the middle of the working-classes, I’ve learned that art is VERY important to the bourgeoisie. I’ve also come to know many folks who’ve spent a great deal of time studying how art affects society and yet when I walk into a museum, any musuem, I’m bored silly. Lately, I’ve brought my knitting along so that I can muster up the patience to wait for my upper-class spouse as she enjoys museums so much. I remember your classes at NSFSR, they were a large part of what inspired my educational trajectory to graduate school. Can you give me any advice on how to come to an appreciation of art? Would understanding it’s history help? Or, am I to remained unmoved by it? And yes, I also find your comment about the mall to be inflamatory.

    sincerely, your former student,
    rebekah

  6. this is one of the lamest things i have ever read. being a tax payer and surviving in a place like new york city, which is not easy if your not rich, i dont think we should have to pay for access to museums. for starters, who paid for objects that were normal every day things eons ago??? in the year 5020 for example (assuming earth still exists) a laptop is gonna be on exhibit in some museum and will look like what a dinosaur fossil looks like to us today. it will have been acquired for free but then will be deemed “priceless.” museum admission fees are ridiculous and uneccesary. the moma gives a membership discount to people who live 150 miles outside of NYC? why? they probably live in a city where the cost of living is super cheap. they should pay more for a membership if anything. look at college dorm fees…if you’re not from the college’s city you pay MORE to live in a dormitory where as a resident of the city who chooses to attend that college pays less. why shouldnt new yorkers who deal with the city life (and im sure visit the museums more often )pay less? if they want us to pay for the new building they should use some of the billions of tax dollars that millions of new yorkers are paying every year. when the average new yorker will have spent more than half of their life working and paying taxes, going to a museum to see fossils, a painting, a bronze bowl, etc, should damn well be free!!!

    angrily, but respectfully yours,
    matthew anthony

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