The Cost of Things: Museums

The new Kehinde Wiley exhibit opens at the Brooklyn Museum in a few days and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek. (The “Press” sticker is still attached to my sweater, so that I get to feel momentarily better-than-garbage when I glance at myself in a mirror.) The show is breathtaking, full of everything from sculpture to stained glass. Highly recommend.

The Brooklyn Museum is a 10–15 walk from my house, next to the equally awesome Botanical Gardens. I have lots of fondness for both institutions. Do I belong to either? No.

It’s dumb! Or, more specifically, I guess, it’s penny wise, pound foolish. But it’s so hard to know what to buy memberships to. If I could I would buy memberships to every cultural institution I like to spend time at: the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanical Gardens, BAM for sure. Maybe the zoo in Prospect Park? Maybe the Brooklyn Children’s Museum? Both are great places to take a toddler with endless amounts of energy. The aquarium?

Too many choices! I close down and do nothing.

Partly I think I have a hard time because I did grow up in DC, where the zoo and the museums alike are free of charge. Free is the most amazing price tag. I went to the zoo constantly as a kid because I didn’t have to pay for it and it was easy to get to. I went on a kind of first date there once, when I was a teenager and the guy was significantly older, and we’d only ever spoken online, so I could have been killed. So many memories!

It’s a little bit hard, after that, to get used to paying entry fees, even for reasonable, useful places I support in the abstract. Especially as the numbers creep up. One ticket to the 9/11 museum costs $24. A visit to the Intrepid Museum is $31. These are pretty serious amounts of money, or at least they feel that way to me.

The Times did a “Room for Debate” series about this after MoMA raised its ticket prices to $25. (“Museums are expensive, but so are movies and theater.”) Michael Rushton at Arts Journal took a different approach:

This is not a high price. Put aside how much it has increased over the past twenty years, since old prices are not what is relevant here. Instead, think of the current price as it stands. Admission is $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, $12 for students, and children under 12 are free. I can take my three children to see one of the greatest collections of visual art in the world for about the same family price as taking them to see The Croods this weekend. It would cost me less than a family lunch at our local Applebee’s. …

all $25 will get you at Citi Field is a chance to see the Mets from the outfield at nosebleed heights, any other seat will cost you more. $25 will not get me to an ordinary concert with the New York Philharmonic. It can get me into the highest balcony for the Metropolitan Opera, but no closer. But $25 (the top price) will get me a full day up close with an astounding collection of art.

Here’s a counterpoint from the LA Times arguing that the city’s museums should be free, so as to be as accessible as possible.

because they are tax exempt, art museums already count the public as a major, indirect source of revenue. Required admission fees add a second hit — a kind of “double jeopardy” — and it is one that falls harder on those who can least afford it. … Admission fees turn visitors into customers, and relying on customers turns an educational enterprise — which is what a museum is — into a public entertainment.

Do you pay for museums? How often / how much? Should they be like libraries, or are you fine with shelling out $20 or more — or braving the crowds for Free Fridays — to spend time communing with art?

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