Greg Allen has thrown
down the gauntlet. Give him a "well-argued explanation of the damage
incurred by $20 tickets and what MoMA could/should realistically do to remedy
it," he says, and he’ll give you a pair of free passes to MoMA, good anytime
So, given that I can never resist a freebie, I’m going to give it a go. After
all, the free passes are worth a good $40, which means that if I get them, I’ll
have been earning an effective rate of more than two cents a word. Wahey!
First of all, MoMA is a public organisation. It might not get much in the way
of direct public subsidy (although it does get some), but it only retains its
non-profit status because it provides a service to the general public. Its purpose,
you might say, is (1) to show great art (2) to "the
widest possible audience" (3) as effectively as possible.
Now spending somewhere north of $850 million on a major renovation basically
addresses the third part of that purpose. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have
all faith that the renovation is just as wonderful as everybody says it is.
(I was going to say "spectacular" before I realised that was almost
exactly the wrong word.) I’m very pleased that MoMA now has extensive gallery
space for contemporary art and that all our old favourites will look even better
than they did before, hanging in the perfectly-formed new spaces designed for
Furthermore, the "great art" part of the equation is a no-brainer:
for all that MoMA has been selling
of late, it still has easily the greatest collection of modern art on the planet.
Show the Demoiselles
on its own anywhere else in the world, and I’m sure you’d have lines round the
block of people waiting to spend $10 or $15 just to see that one painting.
It’s also a no-brainer, however, that charging $20 to get in will put a lot
of people off, and that one of the best ways of attracting the widest possible
audience is to charge the lowest possible admission fee. Greg asks for specific
examples, so I’ll give him some.
- The artists of the future. It’s not clear how much admission for children
will be to MoMA, but in any case there are lots of artists of the future who
are no longer schoolkids. Great art is not something you see once, ingest,
and move on: it’s something you return to time and time again, learning something
new each time. A high cost of entry minimises the number of people who will
return to their favourite works.
- The art-lovers of the future. Not everyone, Greg, is already as keen on
art as you are. One of the great revelations of Tate Modern is that if a modern
art museum is free, enormous numbers of people will turn out to enjoy it.
Barriers to entry are bad things, and $20 is the highest barrier to entry
in the museum world. What’s more, there’s a very strong feeling that once
you’ve paid your $20, you should get your money’s worth. So you traipse around
every single gallery, spend more time reading wall panels than looking at
art, and leave drained, exhausted, and with little if any enthusiasm for ever
going back. You really need to be pretty cavalier with your money to spend
$20 on MoMA admission, wander over to one painting, spend some time enjoying
it, leave, and repeat the process as many times as you want. But that’s the
way to really build up a love and appreciation for art.
- The poor. Obviously. Take, for instance, a schoolteacher trying to support
a family in New York City. Where is that person going to find $20 to visit
- People who aren’t (yet) interested in modern art. A $20 admission fee basically
means you’re preaching to the converted. People who know what lies on the
other side of the turnstiles might be willing to cough up; people who don’t,
on the other hand, will simply stay away.
Greg also gets invidious when he starts talking about how much a ticket to
MoMA is "worth". In the art world, you see, things are worth whatever
someone is willing to pay. And I’m sure that even if ticket prices went up to
$2,000, there would still be people willing to pay that in order to be able
to visit the new MoMA. Clearly, the idea of trying to put a value on a MoMA
ticket is impossible.
There’s also the idea, which has been lurking in the background of the debate
all along, and which is implicit in the fact that the price hike coincides with
the reopening, that a bigger and better museum helps to justify the $20 admission
fee. Greg, in his post, goes on at some length about the insane amounts of money
which have been poured into MoMA over the past couple of years, as though it’s
somehow the job of MoMA’s visitors to amortize the costs of construction.
In fact, it’s simply not true that admission to large museums can or should
be more expensive than admission to small museums. We have all experienced museum
fatigue: beyond a certain size, it becomes impossible or inadvisable to try
to see any more art in one go. The Guggenheim might charge more money per square
foot, but the fact is that a good Guggenheim show is all that one person can
comfortably take in in one go. The Frick, to take another example, does not
have an enormous collection, but size doesn’t matter. A visitor gets just as
much out of a visit to the Frick or the Guggenheim as they do out of a visit
There are many, many reasons, then, why MoMA should be actively encouraging
repeat visits. For one thing, they’re the only way it’s really possible to see
all the artworks on show. Moreover, if visitors come for one of the big shows,
they’ll probably not bother with the permanent collection at all. And if someone
does spend $20 to come in and have a look around, and sees something they like,
it should be as easy as possible for them to come back and really learn to appreciate
Greg asked for ideas about what MoMA should do, so here are some.
- Make tickets valid for two days, rather than one. (If necessary, ask people
to sign their ticket when they get it, and then again when they want to reuse
it the following day.)
- Make memberships much cheaper. $75 is a very large amount of money to spend
up front on museum admission. Bring that number down a lot – to $25,
say – and you’ll have many more people taking advantage of membership
and really using the museum as a resource.
- Allow people to pay for their membership over time, either on some kind
of installment basis, or through ticket purchases. Set things up so that when
you visit the museum for the third or fourth time in a year, you can trade
in your ticket stubs for a membership back-dated to your first visit.
Most importantly, however, MoMA should get its priorities straight. At the
moment, it seems 100% about getting the architecture perfect, and 0% about making
it as accessible to as many people as possible. How come the trustees were asked
to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars for renovation, but nothing
at all to help bring down ticket prices? The architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, famously
told MoMA that if they gave him a lot of money, he would build a great museum;
if they gave him even more, he would make the architecture disappear. At that
point, some hard questions should have been asked about how to spend that extra
couple of hundred million dollars. Was invisible architecture the way to go?
Or should it have been spent instead on bringing down ticket prices?
Glen Lowry expects about two million visitors a year, paying $20 each. That’s
$40 million in ticket revenue. Cut the ticket price in half, and the number
of visitors will increase – let’s say you’d get $25 million in ticket
revenue at $10 a ticket. The cost of that would be $15 million a year, or a
net present value of rather less than the amount that Taniguchi’s budget was
increased over the course of the construction process. And you’d get more visitors,
which, of course, is a good thing in itself.
But MoMA doesn’t seem to think that way. Rather, it was built by billionaires
so that they could look upon the greatest possible art museum they could make.
The Great Unwashed are welcome to come in, but they’ll have to pay whatever
they’ll have to pay.
Think about it this way: the last person to donate $40 million towards the
costs of construction basically made sure that the mullions were that little
bit thinner, the walls floated that little bit more perfectly, the wood floors
were that much more expensive and perfectly polished. Alternatively, they could
have put that money towards making the entire museum free to everybody for a
full year. It’s obvious to me which would have been the better use of money.
And it should be obvious to Greg as well.