About those museum prices

we get lettersMy post staking a claim that $25 to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art was not expensive generated some comments.

There are two issues at play here, not entirely separable: first, that compared to other genres of art, high and low, $25 to see what is one of the world’s greatest collections of art is not widely at odds with what one pays elsewhere, and in fact might even be somewhat less, and, second, regardless of the price compared to other genres, ought the Museum to charge a price as high as $25? The focus of my post was on the first issue, but virtually all commentary was aimed at the second issue, so let’s look closer.

BobG notes that “in at least some sense, the art already belongs to the public.” But even if we accept that, it remains that researching, curating, and exhibiting the art is an ongoing cost. We also “own” Yellowstone National Park, but it will cost me $25 to drive into the park, and with good reason – there is a cost to managing and preserving the natural heritage. In a sense, we own (or, more properly, nobody owns) the works of classical music for which copyright has expired and which now exist in the public domain. But we recognize that those works cannot be performed costlessly, and we expect to pay for the chance to hear a live performance.

A second argument is that there are benefits to society from access to the art beyond those that accrue to the actual visitors, and there is a textbook economic case for subsidizing goods that exhibit such “positive externalities.” MikeW says “Libraries are free because we consider access to books and other information essential to meaningful citizenship in our society.” And I benefit from others having access to that information, exercising their citizenship, even if I don’t personally use the library – it makes for a better society for me as well as them. A good point, but it does leave the question of how much subsidy is appropriate. That positive externalities exist are grounds for some subsidy – and in fact the Met is heavily subsidized by the city and by donors past and present – but it does not necessarily lead to the result that entrance ought to be free.

A third argument is that for many people, $25 is not a trivial sum. Sarah writes that “it’s going to be really hard for museums to shake their stuffy, exclusive reputations when they fail to consider those in lower income brackets as valuable patrons,” and Zoe notes “How many first-time museum-goers have arrived and been too shy NOT to fork over $25 (per person!) that they could ill afford–never to return? It is wrong to humiliate people of lower economic status in this way. Especially given the amount of energy dedicated to dispelling any aura of elitism at museums.” Here I am going to refer to an older post on targeting benefits to lower-income individuals. Given the demographic we expect to visit the museum, even if the price were lowered to $5, is lowering the entrance fee in general an effective way to benefit potential lower-income patrons? I fully agree that for many people $25 for a museum visit is beyond their budget, and for that period of their lives where income is tight they will need to rely on other places to experience art (and there are many places where art is to be had for free). But lowering the price for professors like me is a costly way to benefit low-income patrons. Pay-what-you-can evenings and the like are much more cost effective at achieving this result.

Thanks to all those taking the time to comment, it’s what makes blogging worth doing.


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  1. MikeW says

    …And thank you for taking the time to respond to our comments. It’s very nice to see you follow up.

    There’s one more important aspect that I think hasn’t been mentioned in this discussion: Why exactly are museum prices rising? Declining subsidies may be one issue, but I have to say that I turned pale when I saw the recent headlines that the billionaire investor Steven A. Cohen plans to purchase a painting by Picasso for $155m (not even a record). Of course, Cohen is a private individual, not an institution. But are museums also spending money on works or art whose prices have become inflated and whose social value has in turn diminished (I’m sure that Cohen, himself, understands that these basic principles behind inflation can’t be avoided…)? Museums put their cultural capital behind the “art world” and, in doing so, they do much to increase the dollar values of works of art. But if they invested this capital elsewhere, the public might be just as well (or even better) served, and money raised by museums for purchasing art could be put to better uses.

    The New York Times ran an interesting article recently titled, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture.” It highlighted some wonderful institutions that remain relevant despite residing on the fringes of the “art” world. And as far as I’m familiar, these institutions don’t charge $25 admission fees.

  2. BobG says

    I would like to second the thank you for your responses to the comments.

    I wanted to make a further point. Today I went to the Metropolitan Museum for two hours of just wandering around and admiring the complete rehanging of the permanent collection (not yet complete). As a member, I didn’t need to pay an entry fee. While I do feel that museums should be free, I have to admit that the relatively modest cost of a single membership (and at the lowest category)–$70 for someone who lives in NY–is indeed a great bargain for anyone who goes more than, say, three times in a year. And as the Met points out, there are discounts for certain groups and there are no surcharges once you are in. That is, if there are five or six special exhibitions on, entrance to all is included in the single entrance fee. That is a good deal, by any lights. So I agree in part with your initial point: relatively speaking, it’s not unreasonably costly to go to the Met for a world-class experience. But I think the other issues, especially the Met’s educational function and (as the suit alleges) the fact that it was supposed to be free, are still important.

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