November 10, 2004

Free MoMA?? Try F(*#%-ing Expensive MoMA

[Update: I would point out this is my own opinion; I do volunteer work for MoMA, but I don't speak for the Museum or any of its officers. I wrote this in direct reaction to FreeMoMA.org, which makes a lot of assertions about MoMA that, in my experience, don't ring true at all.]

And that's why it's $20. When the MoMA's Film curator presented the story of the new building, as told through a series of silent movie title cards and film clips, three scenes got way bigger laughs than the rest:

Glenn Lowry discusses the building with the curatorial staff was the scene from Babe where docile sheep, doing exactly as they're told, march in formation.

What those curatorial meetings were really like was a shot from Twelve Angry Men where the jurors confront Henry Fonda and tell him why he's wrong.

But Mike Margitich quickly meets his goal for the capital campaign brought down the house. A 1930's tuxedo'ed man locks the door, walks over to an elegantly dressed woman, grabs her by the shoulders, and shakes her violently until a wallet drops on the floor. He picks it up, and the two sit down to dinner.

People obviously related. After all, they were at the MoMA Founders dinner Monday night, 200 or so people who had given $1-50+ million each towards the museum's $858 million capital campaign. Also there: us, Danny Meyer, and the folks from Target who decided to underwrite four years of free Friday evenings at the museum.

There were no calls for revolution, but there was also no doubt that I was not the biggest Marxist in the room. I recognized half a dozen people who, together, spent maybe $50 million to defeat George W Bush. and I talked with people whose parents fled the Nazis, masterpieces in tow. This was not a street carnival; it was an incredibly and undeniably powerful demonstration of passion for art, for culture, and for things that are demonstrably more important than money.

The new MoMA building is an overwhelming, jaw-dropping testament to the importance of art and culture to our city and our civilization. Not just the art of the past, which has been sanctioned, studied, and made safe and tasteful. MoMA has made a big, expensive investment in the idea that the art of our lifetimes is relevant, even necessary, too. Love'em or hate'em, seriously wealthy people made--and make MoMA possible; if it were up to government, or the general populus around here, face it: there'd be nothin'. MoMA is an expensive luxury subsidized by a very few that benefits the whole culture.

It was only a few years ago when the debate and criticism about MoMA centered on what, as time moved farther from the Modern era, the museum should become: a historical or a current institution. That decision has been conveniently elided from the smug upper-middlebrow snobbery and faux populism that fuel complaints about the new $20 admission price.

I'm not going to defend the decision. Frankly, I think the stink was avoidable. Glenn Lowry's gotten flak for comparing the ticket price to other "entertainment" activities. He was too diplomatic to make the comparison that really matters: to other museums in the city.
The Met's $12 (at least that's what they tell the tourists); the Whitney IS $12; the Guggenheim's $18, after you decline the audio tour. Is a visit to MoMA worth $2 more than one to the Guggenheim? 'Nuff said.

Furthermore, the dire cultural consequences that $20 critics predict will not materialize. Monday, the mayor called the museum a crown jewel of the city; MoMA will be open to the city's schools, which will have the first city-wide art curriculum in a generation, starting next year. And most importantly for New Yorkers--and anyone who would visit more than once a year--membership is skyrocketing.

If someone can come up with specific demographics who have their cultural capital expropriated, I bet the museum and its underwriting foundations and billionaires could come up with a viable solution to serving them. But in the absence of such analysis, kvetching about the price strikes me as either 1) misdirected idealism and condescending romanticism towards some amorphous Common Man, or 2) the selfish whines of people who spend $10/day on macchiatos, and don't support their public radio station, either.

MoMA could calm this tempest in a fur-lined teapot very easily by offering a money-back guarantee. After seeing the collection reinstalled in that spectacular building, only a true philistine--or a schnook--would think it's not worth it*.

And if you're still so sure, drop me an email (by the 16th) with your well-argued explanation of the damage incurred by $20 tickets and what MoMA could/should realistically do to remedy it. I'll publish or link to the five best responses here, and the winners will each receive a pair of free passes to MoMA, good anytime through 2005. [Note: You'll get serious points off for Unabomber-length manifestos, aint-never-gonna-happen-during-THIS-administration federal subsidies, and gratuitous Bordieu references.]

Related: freemoma.org
Tyler gives me a good thrashing, for the children, plus links
Gothamist gives great roundup of the media

[Update 11/17: See who gets the free passes and why]

* Yes, I know now that a schnook gets duped, not someone who unscrupulously takes advantage of the refund after enjoying the museum,say, a shyster. For what it's worth, my Jive is only slightly better than my Yiddish.

art | posted by greg at November 10, 2004 4:11 AM | TrackBack