Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Shouldn’t museums be free?

Met to Raise Admission to Twenty Dollars

07.13.06 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art is raising its recommended admission price for adults to twenty dollars from fifteen dollars, reports Carol Vogel in the New York Times, making it one of the most expensive museums to visit in the world. Museum spokesman Harold Holzer said that the increase, which takes effect August 1, is intended to remedy an annual operating deficit that has averaged three million dollars in recent years. He emphasized that the fee was suggested, not obligatory. MoMA drew broad attention in 2004 when its compulsory admission fee soared to twenty dollars from twelve dollars upon opening its expanded home in Midtown Manhattan.

July 22, 2006
Critic's Notebook

Should Art Museums Always Be Free? There’s Room for Debate

A museum’s admission policy is charged with meaning. It encodes the institution’s core values — its sense of itself, its mission and its public — and broadcasts them to that public. It’s like a thumbprint, a tiny yet accurate key to a whole identity. It is also, periodically, a hot-button issue.

In a 2002 panel discussion at Harvard University that was recently quoted on the art blog Culture Grrl, Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, remarked that “it’s almost a moral duty that museums should be free.” Another panelist, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, emphatically differed. Noting that people pay “huge amounts to money” to attend rock concerts and sports events, he asked, “What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

That excellent question is front and center in New York this month, now that the Met has announced a rise in its suggested admission fee, to $20 from $15. Those who were upset by the increase should remember that the Met’s admission is still suggested, a voluntary donation. (Hello? You can pay a penny.)

The real offense is the museum’s coyness about publicizing this fact, having some time ago deleted from its ticket-desk signs the sentence “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something.” Nonprofit institutions aren’t exempt from truth in advertising, and partial truth is not sufficient. On the other hand, the $20 admission fee is absolutely required at the Museum of Modern Art, which raised it from $12 — a 67 percent increase — in 2004.

To justify such fee increases, or for that matter the very existence of fees, this country’s museums have come to cast themselves as a blend of popular entertainment, corporation and school. From this has descended a confused identity and any number of ills: mall-like, low-functioning new wings and expansions; museum bookstores largely devoid of books; ever-larger departments of “education’’; and boards of trustees too willing to approve impulse sales from the permanent collection or to siphon authority from seasoned curators.

But museums only partly resemble popular entertainment. Unlike corporations, they were not founded out of a profit incentive. They are only marginally like schools, where the overriding goal is the learning of basic skills.

As has been said before, museums are most comparable to libraries. Like libraries, they are repositories of knowledge. Like books, artworks are tools for lifelong self-education; it is through them that we discover and explore important aspects of our humanness. They should be equally available to all, for the good of the individual and society as a whole. Most Americans would be appalled if public libraries charged entrance fees.

Setting out to write this article, I expected to make a plea for free museums and to propose that all museums pledge publicly to the principle and then work toward it, the way car manufacturers are working toward zero-emission engines. I call it the free-for-all pledge.

But my research revealed that an impressive number of museums appear to have made this pledge — that they have recently “gone free” or have been free, or almost free, to the public for quite some time. In late May, Baltimore’s most prominent museums — the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum — announced that they would eliminate admission charges on Oct. 1 with the help of an $800,000 grant from the city and the county.

Baltimore follows the example of St. Louis, which in 1971 started using city and county tax revenue to guarantee free admission at the St. Louis Art Museum (a good thing, since the phrase “Dedicated to Art and Free to All” is engraved in the stone facade of its 1904 building), as well as the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center and the Missouri History Museum.

In 1988, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts went from pay-what-you-wish to free admission, with help from the Ford Motor Company, which supports Ford Free Museum Days at museums in five American cities. The Dayton Art Institute went free in 1994 with an endowment from Bank One. The Cincinnati Art Museum did the same in 2003 with an endowment from the Richard and Lois Rosenthal Foundation. Ford sponsorship and parking garage fees enabled the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., to go free in 1998. And it will remain free when its new wing, designed by the architect Stephen Holl, opens next June.

Of course, the Smithsonian’s Washington art museums and the National Gallery of Art are free. They are supported almost entirely by taxpayer dollars, which makes it hard to deny that the public owns them. Other museums that have long been free include the great Cleveland Museum of Art; the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio; the Kimbell Art Museum, the Menil Collection and the Amon Carter Museum in Texas; the Des Moines Art Center; the Virginia Fine Arts Museum in Richmond; and the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego. These museums usually charge for special exhibitions and have donation boxes prominently displayed. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is free.

Finally, the Brooklyn Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts are among the encyclopedic big-city museums that, like the Met, have pay-what-you-wish policies, with suggested admissions ranging from $5 to $8. A glaring exception is the Art Institute of Chicago, which on June 3 converted its $12 admission from suggested to mandatory. A press release huffed that the change is “NOT a fee increase,” citing research that showed most visitors already pay the full admission. But given that one could get in for a penny before, the increase is astronomical. The Art Institute is free one evening a week (two in summer), thanks to Ford.

Maybe the free-for-all pledge has to be preceded by a freer-for-all pledge: museums that charge admission should get serious about expanding both their free times and the categories of people who are granted free admission. (The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston sets a standard of almost cynical frivolousness: anyone named Isabella gets in free. The Los Angeles County Museum, which is open till 8 p.m. five days a week and till 9 on Fridays, is free after 5, the result of sponsorship from Target.)

Big museums in Philadelphia, Boston and especially New York, the country’s most expensive, should shake off their sense of incurious entitlement and try their hardest in this regard. The Philadelphia Art Museum, which charges $12 for adults normally, is pay-what-you wish all day Sunday. The Whitney Museum (normally $15) and the Guggenheim ($18) are pay-what-you-wish for a few hours on Friday evenings, while the Modern, thanks to Target, is free from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday.

Museums speak of wanting to attract larger, more democratic audiences. They cannot even begin to know this audience, much less accommodate it, until they lower the barriers, at least to their permanent collections. Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum, told The Washington Post that the number of nonwhite visitors nearly tripled during the museum’s free hours. Nor can museums begin to know themselves until they make reduced admission a top priority and start combing through their budgets to see how to make it happen.

The spokeswoman for the Toledo Art Museum, whose free admission is dictated by its 1901 charter and supported by its endowment, summed it up: “Our founders had a huge institutional commitment to always remaining free.”

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, museums earn an average of 5 percent of their revenue from admissions. The Met and the Whitney say their admission revenues constitute 12 percent; the Modern says 15 percent. While these amounts are hardly negligible, there are other sources for this money, including corporate donations. And eliminating admission fees can attract new community support. When the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston stopped charging admission in 1995, public donations increased enough to make up for the loss of income.

If museums were to broadcast unequivocally that their first priority is art and the public’s contact with art, their public image would improve and sharpen. And other things about them would start to change, from the people who sit on their boards, to the buildings they build.

While the art world often wonders out loud if art can change society, it seems fairly certain that museums can. They put us in touch with the world and its history. They reveal to us our own feelings, talents and capacities, shaping our idea of what we can become. They give us the visual equivalent of things sorely needed today: an understanding of difference, and therefore, of tolerance.

In times as dire as ours, everything matters more than art. Yet in such times, art matters more than ever.

Where will the money come from?

Vatican Seeks Modern Art

07.18.06 - The Vatican Museums, half a millennium old and home to works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Caravaggio, are looking for modern art, reports the New York Times' Lawrence Van Gelder. Francesco Buranelli, director of the museums, told the newspaper La Stampa that he "would like very much to have a Picasso" and plans acquisitions "above all in sectors like contemporary art."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Scot sold van Gogh paintings for a pittance | Reuters.com

Scot sold van Gogh paintings for a pittance
Sun Jul 9, 2006 10:07 AM ET

By Ian MacKenzie

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - When Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid returned from Paris with two paintings by Vincent van Gogh, his father berated him for bringing such "atrocities" home and sold them to a French dealer for five pounds ($9) each.

It did not matter that the paintings, a portrait of Reid and a still life of a basket of apples, were in fact gifts to the young Scot, who had lived for several months in Paris with Vincent and his brother, Theo, in Montmartre in 1886-87.

The two paintings and another van Gogh portrait of Reid are included in an exhibition of the Dutch painter's works that opened recently at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery, part of the National Galleries of Scotland. It runs to September 24.

The exhibition is based on British "pioneer collectors" who were among the first to appreciate Impressionist painters.

Frances Fowle, curator of the exhibition, said the anecdote about the sale of the two paintings by James Reid came in a book by Scottish student Alexander Hartrick, who met van Gogh in Paris in 1887.

Fowle said that in later life Alexander Reid, who became a major art dealer, bemoaned the sale of his two paintings and that "he hadn't realized what a great artist van Gogh would turn out to be and how marketable he would be."

Hartrick himself almost bought another still life with apples for two francs, but decided not to because he would have to carry it back to his hotel.

A century later, a van Gogh still life of 15 sunflowers was sold to Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto for some 40 million dollars at auction in London in March 1987.


Van Gogh's two portraits of Alexander Reid in the exhibition, brought together for the first time, provide an insight into the evolution of his painting style.

The earlier portrait, with Alexander seated in an armchair, was painted shortly after he moved into the apartment.

"He still has that Realist style that he inherited from his time in the Netherlands ... so he had a much darker tone of pallet," said Fowle.

"But then you can see as soon as he got to Paris, his pallet lightened and I think the interest in neo-Impressionism is very clear in the second portrait."

Fowle also noted that Reid and van Gogh were remarkably similar physically.

"They were taken as twins and these portraits were originally catalogued as self-portraits (of van Gogh)."

The first portrait is now at the Art Museum of the University of Oklahoma in the United States, while the second is in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Fowle said Reid apparently acquired the still life of a basket of apples after setting out on a painting expedition with van Gogh.

"Van Gogh saw the apples in a market stall and decided he had to paint them. He didn't have any money on him, so Reid lent him the money or gave him the money, and he marched off back home with his apples.

"At the end of the day he was presented with this picture -- that's the story, anyway."
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