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.