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Davos Syndrome at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

February 7, 2014

Thomas Campbell—director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—arrived in Davos last week with an unambiguous message for the World Economic Forum. In discussions about “Reshaping the World,” the theme of this year’s gathering of the world’s rich and powerful, Campbell argued that culture and the arts have become little more than an amusing sideshow for the elite. “A major, missing part of the dialogue,” Campbell urged, “is cultural sustainability. It feels like an add-on. We’re the entertainment.” Far from blaming the rich for this state of affairs, however, Campbell cried mea culpa on behalf of culture itself. Any “discussion of the culture industry,” he said, “needs to be involved at a deeper socioeconomic level. We need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.”

That a steward of one of the world’s premier institutions of high culture should be touting the virtues of the bottom line is itself unsurprising. The commodification of visual art, nearly as old as art itself, has recently ballooned to a scale unimaginable even thirty years ago. Simply witness the outrageous amounts of money that glitzy conmen like Damien Hirst can fetch for their work, the sales power that third-rate artists like Jeff Koonz command at auction, or the fact that an otherwise unremarkable triptych by Francis Bacon recently sold for $142.4 million dollars at Christie’s. (Hirst, incidentally, was one of the artists whose work was showcased at the Davos summit this year.) Museums have responded to these charged market dynamics. The price of admission to many of the museums of most renown, throughout the West especially, has climbed steadily in the past several decades. Take New York, for example. Art enthusiasts there cannot gain entry to places like the Guggenheim, Frick or Whitney for less than $18. MoMA will run you $20.

For the director of the Met, however—a museum in New York, accessible to the entire public, where anyone can get in for as little as a penny—to embrace the values of business over those which animate the arts is dismaying. The reasons are many—including the simple principle of it. Jed Perl put it nicely in the New Republic recently. “The trouble with Campbell is that he imagines the only way to speak truth to power is in a language you’re sure the powerbrokers understand. But the great cultural arbiters have always taken an altogether different approach. They have taken it upon themselves to reimagine the nature of power…What the[y] have always done is insist on the power of art in the face of other kinds of power—the power of bottom lines, flow charts, metrics, big data.” But this is only part of the problem.

Campbell’s rhetorical pivot to the values of the private sector reflects a deeper institutional shift underway at the Met, one that could have profound implications for the public arts. Last fall before leaving office, Michael Bloomberg amended New York City’s lease with the Met, which sits on public land. Under the new terms of agreement, the Met was granted powers to charge admission to its holdings, including extra fees for special exhibitions—a radical departure from the original lease that invested the institution with no such rights. The move came after two lawsuits were brought against the museum claiming that the Met’s current “suggested” admission structure deliberately misleads visitors into believing that mandatory fees are required for entry.

Leaving aside the issues challenged in court, the Met’s newly established right to impose standard admission raises more fundamental concerns about the role of art in public life. At a moment when the barriers to culture and fine arts are prohibitively high across the board—and getting worse—for increasing segments of the population, institutions like the Met have defended the simple proposition that universal access to the arts is necessary for maintaining a healthy polity; that leisure is a right common to everyone by virtue of their being humans. Unlike the majority of other museums across the city, where taking in a show constitutes a form of luxury consumption, the Met opens its world-class collection to anyone interested enough to show up and wander the halls. The possibility of establishing a flat-rate entrance fee, or even instituting admission rates for special exhibitions, undermines the good faith of this proposition, and threatens to extend the capital commodification of art by rendering it the exclusive preserve of the wealthier classes.

For its part, the museum has assured the public that it has no intention of charging mandatory fees, now or in the future. The Met’s senior vice president for public affairs, Harold Holzer, told the New York Times that the museum has “no plans to institute” a standard admission, “and no plans to make plans.” What the renegotiated lease with the New York City does, Holzer went on, “is preserve the museum’s right to do so, which we think crucial in the wake of legal challenges to admissions that pose a threat to a vital part of our operating budget.” Campbell himself underscored his institution’s commitment “to maintaining—and further widening—public access to the museum” in a public statement issued shortly after news broke of the renegotiated agreement. But all this amounts to cold comfort.

There’s no getting around the fact that running a museum is expensive, and economic pressures that have faced Met administrators in the past are no secret. While reaffirming his commitment to the public mission of the Met, Campbell was simultaneously very clear that his museum’s policy of “pay what you want” might well be sacrificed in the name of economic necessity. “The effort to broaden and diversify audiences will continue,” Campbell wrote. “At the same time, however, faced with perennial uncertainties about future funding sources, the Met and the City concluded that it makes sense now to consecrate our longstanding and wholly legal admissions policies,” including the right to “charge such amounts as the museum shall from time to time prescribe.”

A Met where standard admissions become the norm is not difficult to imagine. It would almost certainly begin to resemble its counterparts along Fifth Avenue, or MoMA on 53rd. These museums have long abandoned the conceit that art serves to nourish the soul. Instead, they have increasingly organized themselves into precincts of commercial activity for the well-heeled and the hip. What efforts are made to engage with the broader public generally come in the form of corporate-sponsored “free Fridays” and the like—massive advertisement schemes where admission rates are temporarily suspended and galleries are converted into frenzied madhouses of people trying to see everything at once. The big winners, of course, are the captains of industry who, fancying themselves benevolent oligarchs, pick up the tab.

This is no future for the Met, and yet a likely one. When the next economic downturn arrives, the Metropolitan will face tough choices to avoid slipping into the red. It’s an easy leap to suppose that charging admission will seem like a no brainer for Met administrators. After all, art lovers pay steep entrance fees up and down Museum Mile, and they will to do so at the Met as well, if required. But institutions like the Met should continue to represent something entirely different. Even as the rest of the art world moves to a place where communion with beauty is attached to a price tag, the Met stands as one of the great monuments to public enjoyment and education. This may not translate easily into “language that businessmen understand.” But then, that was never the point.

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