Before the end of the month, get out to Queens to the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary home. You will get to see a retrospective of the work of Lee Bontecou, one of the greatest artists alive. But perhaps more importantly, you can check out a small selection of the museum’s unrivalled permanent collection, the priceless Picassos and Pollocks, before the Queens facility closes on Sept. 27.
Eyes, look your last — you might not see this art for a long time hence. For when the museum reopens in midtown Manhattan this November, you will have to pony up an extortionate $20 for admission. All the Rockefellers and Astors that the city has to offer could not subsidize the $858 million cost of the appallingly enormous new space, a black behemoth by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi that seems to have eaten 54th Street whole. Nor will the haute restaurant inside the museum or the multiple gift shops make admission fees more affordable. And there’s one more hurdle to hurdle: tickets will be sold only for certain times, and if you want to make sure that your time slot is available you’ll have to pay an additional $3.75 per ticket for what is being called a “convenience fee.”
How could the management of the world’s most important modern art museum justify such exorbitant prices? Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, told The New York Times in an interview that the increase was fair for the experience that the museum put forward. And besides, said Lowry, the price was in line with other “leisure” activities on offer in New York. It’s a shocking statement, and for more than one reason. For one thing, it’s patently false — tickets for the bleachers at Yankee Stadium still cost only eight bucks a pop, and standing room tickets at the City Opera are only $15.
But more shocking than the statement’s numerical inaccuracy was its political implications. Was the director of the Museum of Modern Art really calling a visit to his institution a leisure activity? Keep in mind that, for decades now, MoMA has presented itself as the Delphi of cultural production, with its director as high priest. It cannot be possible that the museum is trying to reinvent itself as a popular entertainment at the moment of its entrance into a gleaming new building of marble and glass. (Gleaming, yes, but somewhat sullied by the participation of the Genovese crime family in its construction, a collaboration that has led to a 61-count indictment against 24 defendants.)
No, Lowry’s comment was an act of desperation by a man who knows full well that a $20 admission price is untenable. And MoMA is only partially to blame for this. Far more indignation should be directed towards the government, at federal, state and local levels, for failing to support the museum sufficiently. No doubt the museum could have pinched pennies here and there. But without strong and consistent government support, no museum of MoMA’s size and importance can truly be open to all. Indeed the museum is so desperate for state support that it had to look to the government of Denmark, which was persuaded to donate all the furniture in the galleries.
MoMA is hardly the only victim of decreased government support for the arts in America. At next year’s Venice Biennale, a major exhibition where each nation organizes a pavilion, the United States might not even participate at all. The pavilion is normally cosponsored by the State Department and the National Endowment for the Arts, and to present at the Biennale is perhaps the highest honor that an artist can be accorded. But the departments, citing budget shortages, have focused their attention on other programs, such as one that airlifts B-level celebrities to foreign countries in the hopes of improving locals’ image of America. Whether a visit by ex-Supreme Mary Wilson to Mozambique will be more effective than condom use at preventing HIV infection remains to be seen.
We all know that most Western European nations subsidize the arts far more than the United States. Stockholm’s modern art museum charges no admission, and France requires all public construction projects to accord 1% of their budgets to art. And study after study shows that exposure to art promotes everything from better reading skills to greater community involvement. If we want an educated population, a population of true citizens, then the government is going to have to provide the resources for art. State and local governments can’t be expected to pick up the slack; they can’t afford it. Only at the federal level, with a massive infusion of money into new government programs, can real change begin to occur.
One does one’s best not to worry, though. Student tickets to MoMA will cost a marginally more affordable $12. And the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, bravo for them, remain free.
Jason Farago is a senior in Silliman College.