MoMA’s $20 admission

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

through 2005.

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

off masterpieces

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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


  4. 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

to MoMA.

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.

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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13 Responses to MoMA’s $20 admission

  1. Lock says:

    If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it is this: don’t wager with Felix Salmon.

  2. says:

    NOW you tell me…

  3. By the time he got to the proverbial straw man of yuppie conspicuous consumption, coffee, it started to sound he was asking “When did you stop beating your wife?”

  4. jen says:

    I really like the idea of turning in my ticket stubs for a membership. Or maybe being able to buy a book of 5 admissions for the price of 4, like I can for the movies? For specific days or times (ie not saturday)? If they are going to charge that much, they should have a reward program.

    Excellent post. I think part of the problem is most rich people, even the generous rich, still want to be known for stone and marble and not for programs, unless its something they can have their name attached to. Its a value issue, in my book.

  5. Felix says:

    Todd Gibson takes the , very persuasively. Which reminds me of a large group I didn’t mention above: the recent immigrants from Ecuador or Honduras or Mexico who slave away in low-level service industry jobs at midtown hotels and restaurants or as maids in private homes across Manhattan. For these people, every penny counts, and even if they did have $20 to spend on admission to MoMA, they would always sooner remit it back home to their families. Should they be effectively barred from seeing MoMA’s art?

  6. Matthew says:

    In France the museums are all free on the first Sunday of each month. Obviously this isn’t practical in New York, but couldn’t MOMA have a free Sunday a month, or a week, or something similar?

  7. Marc says:

    you could add the fact that they must have made ungodly sums on the MoMA loan exhibit here in Berlin. it was much more successful than anyone imagined so i’m sure they must have gotten a fat cut from what the Neue Nationalgallerie pulled in by having the door open 24hrs a day.

  8. says:

    Y Tu MoMA Tambien

    While a few “right on”s and “elitist”s trickled in over the weekend, and my favorite–“MoMA is a corporation, the new building is a corporate HQ. You are a foot soldier”–just arrived yesterday morning, the quality of the responses to my little MoMA ad…

  9. Mei Mei says:

    I thought that if a museum receives federal funding, and that the MoMa does, any admissions price is in fact a “suggested” price. (E.g. that per law they can’t make you pay if you don’t want to, because of the federal funding). If I am correct about this, people could donate 20 cents instead of 20 bucks each MoMa visit, if they were so inclined. Anybody able to confirm or refute this?

  10. Felix says:

    As far as I know, Mei Mei, MoMA does not receive federal funding, although it does get some help from New York City, and, of course, it is a non-profit so it doesn’t pay federal taxes.

  11. clr says:

    As a FYI: Children are “free” – but you can only get one “free” child ticket per adult. So if you are a family with three children, you get one kid in for free, and then – get this – you have to pay the FULL ADULT PRICE for the additional children. Not student rate, FULL ADULT RATE. That’s crap.

  12. says:

    I think the Met’s and Bklyn Museum’s suggested donation policy is part of their “lease” of public/city land, not because of any federal funding conditions.

    Until MoMA got $60mm from the city for its new bldg, it had never received public money of any kind. As part of the museum’s payback, they gave memberships to every public school principal and expanded their arts education programs with the public schools.

  13. Samantha says:

    MoMA got $60m to create a new building, and public schools are still suffering from budget crises? Not for nothing, because I love the access to museums in NY, …


    I’d rather my kid have enough books, rooms and teachers than their principal getting a free pass to the museum.

    Tsk tsk.

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