While for any given individual art is a luxury, for a civilization to endure, it’s a necessity. Like religion, art lends a purpose to life beyind mere breathing, eating, and reproducing, as if we were cows. The modern age, unlike all previous ages, made great art accessible to ordinary people. Over the past two centuries, public museums became the mainstay of cities around the world. Frequently, in accordance with the wishes of their founders, and with the public beneficence of rich patrons, not to mention city tax breaks and tax dollars, public museums were either free and open to the public, or charged only modest admission fees.
No longer—at least where great modern art is concerned. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) just raised its admission fee 25 percent—from an already absurdly high $20 to the super-stratospheric $25. Students need pay “only” $14. MoMA justifies the increase by the usual public smack about rising costs and maintaining quality, adding that it’s only keeping up with the Met’s admission price—conveniently forgetting to mention that the Met’s fee is only a “suggested fee,” and if you don’t have the money, you can simply pay a dollar and get in.
I have no doubt that tourists from Tokyo, Paris, and London, as well as art-lovers like me who are able to purchase a membership (for $75 a year, a membership lets you drop by MoMA for free any time) will keep on going to MoMA. And I am sure the new fee will not drive away the crowds, which will continue to be huge. I also have no doubt that people on a budget, including many students, and poorer people in general, will disappear from those crowds.
MoMA tossed a bone to those objecting to the increase in admission by reminding everyone that there are four hours on Friday evenings (courtesy of Target) when admission is free. No matter that for many people, that particular window doesn’t work, or that free nights draw so many people you can’t see the art without standing on tiptoe.
Some argue that given the increased costs of running a museum, the new admission fee is a necessity, and even reasonable. Bean counters, measuring everything in the world in terms of money, money, money, discuss the steep increase in terms of supply and demand: If people will pay the new fee, why shouldn’t the museum charge it? Those with a libertarian bent look at the increased admission price as a non-issue. People can choose to go to the museum or not. It’s their free choice.
Progressives like me think differently. In the modern age, the accessibility of art has enabled masses of ordinary people, many of them without a dime, to see imaginative alternatives to their lives. Art is an antidote to the meretricious, consumer society that always beckons people to find meaning in the mall and popular entertainment. Young people—especially artists on their way up—have often more or less camped out in museums, wandering the galleries in search of inspiration, or simply in order to soak up visions by great artists of the past.
I am sure that when the power-makers at MoMA decided on the new fee, they didn’t see it as exorbitant. After all, a movie in New York costs $13.50, and the cheapest tickets to a ball game now cost 30 bucks. Yet I can’t help but see the effect the increased fee will have, which will be to keep the riffraff (i.e., ordinary people on a budget), and students (also on a budget)—away. This is a nice move if you want to preserve the museum as a playground for the privileged and the rich.
For a long time now, museums have placed little shops, selling Leonardo umbrellas and Van Gogh pencils, in the final room of just about every exhibition. This is on top of offering large shops on the main floor, as well as satellite shops around town and online shopping opportunities. And this is in addition to fine wining and dining offered in fancy museum cafes and restaurants. I’ve swallowed my objections to this development because I bought the argument that shops and restaurants were necessary to keep museum doors open.
But now I see the insidiousness of these money-raising ventures. Shopping and dining have melded perfectly with looking at art—so much so that museums are now high-level malls, attracting audiences with money to burn, and, inadvertently or not, driving up admission prices.
In one of the sadder ironies surrounding MoMA’s decision to increase its admission fee, a large number of the artists whose work hangs on MoMA’s walls were poor during their own lifetimes. Many were so poor, in fact, that were they alive today, they would not be able to afford to go see their own art hanging on the museum’s walls.