We just don’t give a buck
Posted by digglahhh on 2 June 2007
“Working class people are so intimidated by the museum experience anyway, they don’t feel they can just give a quarter. It’s really unfair.”
That is a quote from a July 2006 NYT article, given by artist and teacher, Jane Kaplowitz regarding to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to (stealthily) raise the suggested admission fee for adults from fifteen to twenty dollars.
Last week my girlfriend and I went to the Guggenheim. While we waited on the subway platform, I asked her what the admission was. After saying what it was—an absurd $18—she admitted to purposely avoiding telling me prior to our being on our way there.
Poor and working class people are being priced out of culturally and intellectually valuable experiences, while the chic art world is becoming increasingly intimidating to them. The Met is nominally an exception—its admission fee is a voluntary “suggested” contribution. If you can overcome the intimidation factor of its vaulted ceilings, hushed tones, and moneyed patrons, the only thing between you and fifty centuries of art is the momentary scorn of a ticket clerk as you fork over a buck or two and stand tall, waiting for an entry button that, once inside, looks the same as everyone else’s. Revealingly, the plaques that list the museum’s admission fees used to say “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something,” but they no longer do.
The Museum of Natural History is $10.50 for a student, not including the Planetarium (or the substances needed to get the most out of the experience). The Guggenheim is $18 for adults, but a more reasonable $5 for students, and free for children under 12 (actually it is less than that right now because parts of it are closed for renovation and so the price is discounted.) MOMA is $20 for an adult and $12 for “full-time” students. It is free to children, with a nicely high cut-off age of 16 – but the free rate doesn’t apply to “children in groups.”
This is an utter travesty. The cost of living in New York City is an astonishing 212% of the national average already. The rest of the country clucks its tongue and says, “Well, at least there’s Broadway, restaurants, and all those museums.” For years, the first two have been priced out of the reach of the median New Yorker, but at least museums were easy to get into.
If you claim to value the intellectual and social development of a population, especially children, culture must be made accessible. Defenders of museum admission prices often note they are in line with the cost of a movie or baseball game—which, by the way, they no longer are, especially for children—but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if a teenager chose to go to MOMA instead of a movie because it was cheaper? In a world of global competition we can’t afford to continually sour our youth on entire fields of human endeavor. The single most important step towards not alienating urban kids from art is to make it an economically sensible alternative to “low culture.” We can’t continue to blame poor people for making unhealthy decisions if they aren’t offered economically viable, culturally healthy alternatives.
Parents have to take initiative too. I often hear parents talk about how their children would rather play video games or watch television than go to a museum or go to the park to learn how to play basketball. Frankly, that is a bunch of bullshit.
Children are not born with these preferences. They are, however, inundated with advertisements from companies seeking their business (directly or vicariously through their parents). Little Johnny is not born preferring a Playstation controller to finger-paints, but he will soon develop that preference if you don’t attempt to influence him otherwise. Those who tell you to let the child dictate his/her own interests do so because they know what those interests will be if the parent takes a hands off approach.
Going back to the original quote, I think it is true that working class people are made to feel out of place in an art gallery. I’ve had friends tell me such. I try to tell them that many of the artists themselves have more similarities to you and me than with the gallery curators. Shit, Jean-Michel Basquiat isn’t mysterious and offbeat to me; his creative expressions were pretty much what would be expected of an artistically inclined, intelligent person who came of age in the 1970s. Alright, maybe he was a little offbeat.
Much of the greatest art produced comes from struggle; the stereotype of the starving artist is based on a reality. Art is a poor man’s medium that has been co-opted by the wealthy in an attempt to own the culture. Look at what is happening with the graffiti art movement. Over the course of 40 years, by its own admission Time magazine has gone from cursing it as “public defacement” to commissioning it for its own promotional purposes.
Many artists feel just as uncomfortable in the chic culture of the art world as prospective working class visitors would.
Elsewhere, museums are often free. Our national museums, most of them in Washington D.C., are free (though increasingly charging for “special exhibitions”). Around the world, museums are mostly free. There’s nothing more liberating than sauntering into the Tate Museum in London for 15 minutes of a lunch hour just to look at a single painting. Even in this country, more and more museums are offering that experience, as the NY Times reported last year. New York is, unfortunately, completely out of step even though, at 212%, it needs more than any other U.S. city.
Infusing the lives of our children with art is a two-way street. The art world must embrace working class visitors and accommodate them socially and financially. The working class must take the initiative to reclaim their relevance within the art world. Creativity is not the exclusive province of the moneyed and suggested donations are not mandatory. Art has been taken away from the common man because he is too shy and self-conscious to ask for it back.