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Sunday, September 26, 2004

MoMA Stays on Message, Takes on City

Today's Arts & Leisure section in the Times contains an above-the-fold, feature-length article on the Museum of Modern Art's new $20 admission.

MoMA representatives interviewed for the article continue to stress the "bargain" that MoMA provides its visitors. Here's board member Eli Broad as quoted in the article, "Museums are still the best value in culture today. And they would be even if admissions were one-and-a-half times what they are." (Is this Broad floating a trial balloon for a $30 admission charge to his new LACMA?)

The article reports that MoMA considered different pricing structures, including surcharges for using the museum during peak hours and charging additional fees for special exhibitions and programs. After deliberations, the decision makers decided to go with an all-inclusive, but higher priced, model.

How did the museum settle on $20? Museum Director Glenn Lowry says, "There's no science to this. It's all feel. At $20, we thought it would still feel like a good deal." Lowry's justification? MoMA asked $20 for "Matisse Picasso," and people paid it.

The article mentions, but does not go into depth on, an implication of this pricing decision that I would be interested in exploring further after the museum re-opens. I would bet that with this new admission charge, MoMA will see its attendance demographics shift substantially.

Tourists coming into the city tend not to be overly sensitive to price. They will pay the $20 (with raised eyebrows or comments about how much more expensive New York is than home--wherever home might be). They will also spend a good portion of the day at the museum making sure they get their money's worth from their modern art experience. They will be the ones who take advantage of what the Times's writer calls the "many more inducements to spend a leisurely day" that the new facility will provide.

New Yorkers, though, will cut back on their trips to the museum. Only someone with an income the size of Eli Broad's will continue using the museum the way that locals often use art museums--as a way of spending a lunch break or killing an hour between meetings, running in to see two or three favorite works, or stopping by to see a single special exhibition.

MoMA's strategy here, the article hints, is to induce locals into purchasing memberships ($75 for an individual, $150 for a family). That may work with a limited number of local art lovers, but a larger majority will stop visiting, will get their art experiences elsewhere, or will make more of a point of visiting during the few hours late on Friday afternoons when the museum will not charge admission.

By setting its price where it has, MoMA is setting up a pricing structure that will attract tourists while alienating local residents. The museum is taking an "in-the-city, not of-the-city" stance and may be carrying a certain negative ethos back into Manhattan from its temporary home in Queens that didn't exist in Midtown before the expansion.

For the last two years, MoMA QNS has been a hit-and-run destination--a location people visit and then depart as quickly as possible. It has not become a citizen of its local community. It has not helped improve or transform its neighborhood. It hasn't given back.

Every time I have been out there this summer, I have been struck by how little the neighborhood has changed since MoMA QNS opened its doors. I assumed, back then, that with the number of art-loving, affluent visitors the museum would draw to that neighborhood, positive transformation would occur--new business would spring up, other organizations would open in the neighborhood, people would be given more reason to spend time there. None of that occurred.

I'm afraid that with its slick new facade (and what a gorgeous, slick new facade it is!), its inducements to spend time inside the building, and its visitor base of tourists instead of city residents, MoMA is going to carry this bastion-against-the-neighborhood mentality back into the new building on 53rd St.--to the detriment of neighborhood businesses and other cultural institutions in the city.

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