Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Most Hypocritical Position (Mine) On Free Admissions To Museums

Marcel Broodthaers, Museum, Enfants Non Admis, 1968-1969, MoMA (full credits here)

It seems every single essay or article worthy of publication these days - that is, the publications that pay something - has to be a first person essay. I always found the genre unwieldy myself, if only because I don't know how opinions unsupported by facts can make a valid argument, and also because, uh, I don't give a damn that through your great-aunt Millie you discovered a lifelong love of knitting that lead you to become a rebellious yarn-bomber. I don't have any problems with yarn-bombing, I just don't see the point.
Now, you're going to tell me, what is FBC! but a succession of first-person essays? Touché, dear reader, but FBC! doesn't pay itself and given the few readers we have, I don't see that the first person essays here have any broad appeal. Or else I'd already have been hired as a hack at some fancy website.     Just to say that, generally speaking, and there are some exceptions, I tend to be bored by first-person essays because I don't see how someone's else personal experience can automatically translate in something universal. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, but I see the genre as fluff as opposed to serious journalism. For the record, I think maybe 95% of FBC! is fluff, so I'm not looking down on fluff, I'm just puzzled that more and more of the "content" we consume on the internet is made-up of personal essays.

Today's one comes from a series of recent discussions about free admissions to museums in the United States, with a couple of museums like the Hammer in LA announcing they'd offer year-round, free admission to their audience. Art critics and art cognoscenti applaud with all their hands and feet, stomping on the ground to demand that every institution in the US does this too, in the name of making art available to the masses. Not so fast, says my friend Mario on his excellent blog, don't compare apples and oranges and sardines, because it's complicated.
As for me, I have a somewhat convoluted opinion on the subject, mostly based on autobiographical  experiences and empirical facts.
So, here I come with some first-person essay to try laying it around. Initially, I was going to title it "The Day My Grandpa Wore His Best Hat To The Museum", but I don't see why I should drag my late grandpa into this story, except to say that he was a working-class man who liked art and went to visit a museum with me exactly twice in his life. For the record, he loved Brancusi, and he quit school at 13, so fuck you anti-Modern art wankers who think it's only reserved to an elite. It's not.

Instead of my late grandpa, I'm going to drag in this story a bunch of unwilling people who never gave a fuck about art from birth onward, and likely will never give a fuck about it before they die, to demonstrate that free admission to a museum won't make people develop an interest in art if it's not there, though no fault of their own, because they've never been showed that art existed. There are some people to blame in this story, but not the putative audience or the well-meaning museum staff. Especially not them.

So, here I come with my autobiographical experience. I come from a family who's not especially interested in culture per se, but who values education as a tool for social mobility. My grandparents on one side were poor (construction workers), on the other they were modest civil servants (court typists), but my parents did climb the social ladder to become comfortably middle-class. The class issue is important, because to satisfy some bourgeois yearnings, my siblings and I were forcibly enrolled in cultural and sports activities we had zero interest in (I can only do passable air guitar with a tennis racket, and don't ask me to play the piano), but one of them changed my life forever.
The one lucky thing that happened was that I was also sent to afternoon and evening classes for children at the local fine arts school, no doubt with the idea I might end up turning out inoffensive watercolors, but *that* changed everything. I never made it as an artist even after ten years of intensive classes,  but truth be told it never occurred  to me I could actually be one. Instead I set up to become a museum curator and an art historian later in life. These seemed like they were legit jobs people had, and as such they were comprehensible to me. That failed too, but it's another story altogether.

Through these art classes I discovered the world of museums, modern, contemporary and otherwise, and I also was told that as an under-18 I was guaranteed free entry in pretty much all of French public museums. Adults had free admission every Sunday of the year, and children every day.
 So I used that privilege freely and to museums I went, but not that much often because I was a child and obviously I couldn't travel wherever and whenever I pleased. There were only two museums in my hometown (a traditional fine arts museum with only a C+ collection and next to no contemporary art in it, and a folk art/historical museum) and my family didn't travel that much inside of France to places that had art museums. We did visit museums when we traveled elsewhere in Europe but as my mother had zero interest in modern art, we mainly stuck to the classics, which bore me to death back then.

I also quickly realized that outside of the fine arts school NOBODY shared my interest in museums and the stuff inside of them. My classmates at school weren't interested in anything I was into, unsurprisingly, but so were my school teachers. The people responsible for educating the children of the French Republic, I soon discovered, were barely educated themselves outside of the mandatory school curriculum. If it wasn't "in the program", it had no legitimate reason to exist. I'm sure you can see where this text is heading now, but if you don't stick with me for a few thousands words more.
 In French middle school you have or used to have a mandatory 1-hour art class per week, which isn't called "art class" but "drawing class",  a designation that  harks back to the 19th century when French children were taught technical drawing as an early preparation for engineering work.
Our teacher was kind of cool but he never, ever took our class to visit the local fine arts museum.
Ditto all the other teachers.
I've never, ever gone on a school field trip to any fine arts museum or any museum for that matter from K-12, despite museum entrance being free for all children and for the accompanying teachers. Despite my hometown boasting two museums, both a very short walk away from the middle-school I attended.

There was simply no interest whatsoever from the people in charge of passing on education to us. School books never had any pages devoted to art, except for my 8th grade history textbook.
It  had a 2-page spread about art  (and only two pages) that showed one Courbet painting and Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase, both images bearing the legend "this painting caused a scandal when it was first shown in public", but absolutely no mention of why there was a scandal or what the scandal was all about. They seemed pretty tame to me, these two pictures, so I was really puzzled, but when I asked my history teacher about these scandals I was met with a blank stare. He simply didn't know. He was a good history teacher, but we never actually tackled this 2-page spread during the school year. If you want to know, all the other images on these two pages were used as mere illustrations for historical facts, such as a Géricault painting pertaining to Napoléon, and a Gromaire one about WWI.

This painting created a scandal when it was first exhibited. Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase (Number 2),  1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image lifted from Wikipedia.

In French classes we often had to write  essays on  weird broad general questions such as "May the poet be political?", "Is comedy always funny?", "Should realism prevail in literature?" and more often than not,  a quote of some kind we had to elaborate on, but not too freely lest we show unacceptable ideas of our own. Students were supposed to, hhhm, "discuss ideas" but truly they had to show they had read whatever 19th century shit we were always mandatorily reading (according to the French Ministry of Education, it seems that French culture started and ended in the 19th Century) and demonstrate we could write a 3-part essay according to the same immutable outline (thesis - antithesis -synthesis) vaguely lifted out of dialectical principles.
You were supposed to "discuss ideas" with the help of "precise examples" and as an eager, naive teen I always thought I could sneak in a couple of art examples, only to be met with question marks next to my mentions of Kandinsky or Mondrian at best  - at worse, the teacher would have crossed out all mentions of art with vengeful red strokes. Fuck you, high school French teacher who almost disgusted me from reading, may Godzilla shove your beloved Flaubert down your ass and leave it there.
As you see, there was absolutely no interest in visual arts whatsoever from the teaching corps during my formative school years in the French public education system.

 As for the students, for most of them the question didn't even make sense. I went to school with some very poor children, for whom there was a certain mental barrier making it impossible to conceive the idea of a museum where they could go to.
It's not even that  they had an ingrained belief they didn't belong there (like my grandmother did, who always explained her shyness vis-à-vis cultural outings by saying "oh but we're just poor working-class people"), they just didn't know there was such a thing as art and that it was housed inside museums. Because no one ever told them it existed, and there was no mention of it on mainstream television programs, ever.
The same children, at least many of them, had in effect never set foot downtown, which was a mere 5 minutes walk from our school and maybe 15 from our neighborhood, if you walked down straight on the main street where the city bus would take us to downtown, too, if we wanted.
Downtown was where you had stores (duh!) but also where the fine arts museum which was free for all under-18 was located. You had a few cafés that let underage teens linger for hours around one single espresso (bye-bye, Les Caves Thorel, you were ghastly and you will be missed), some largely pedestrian areas where you could loiter like only teenagers like to loiter, and not much else.
Our town was only 10 km  away from the sea, and the beach was accessible by bus, and there was even a local path along the canal that was safe to bike on or even walk on if hiking was your thing.
Yet many if most of the kids I was in middle-school with had never seen the sea, and I am not certain that they ever ventured there in adulthood afterwards.
So if you wanted to go window-shopping you could walk 5 minutes away and it was free and accessible, and if you wanted to walk to the beach on a beautiful day it was a good hour walk away and it was free and accessible if you were young and healthy, and if you wanted to go to the museum it was no more than 7 minutes away and accessible and free everyday if you were under 18, or every Sunday if you were over 18.

 Yet almost nobody in my school ever availed themselves of these possibilities. Of these free and accessible possibilities.

Possibly nobody wanted to walk an hour to get to the sea or go to the museum or go window-shopping downtown for lack of a parental authorization, yet the same kids I knew were left free to play and roam around outside until midnight on schooldays and until God knows when on weekends. They had almost no parental supervision, which translated into a lot of personal freedom to go as they pleased yet they had no access to culture or real education; beyond the one at school that shortly skimmed them off from the regular educational path that us, children of the well-to-do white people, were allowed to stay on, never mind if our grades weren't in actuality substantially better than theirs*.
We'd move on from middle school to high school and they'd be carted off, aged 13 or 15, to vocational schools where they'd train on obsolete equipment for jobs that had disappeared already. They were the underprivileged youths for whom free museum admissions are designed and yet there was this invisible social and mental fence that made it impossible to avail themselves of free and accessible outings, cultural or not.

Now defunct local bar that was tolerant of teenagers lingering for hours over a single espresso and where the Frenchy misspent her youth. Uncredited picture lifted from here.

Was there any particular outreach toward these kids and their parents from the local museum part? As far as I can tell, there wasn't that I can remember now, but in hindsight it is hard to fault the museum when the place where the kids spent the most time, school, had absolutely zero interest in trying to drag us there at least once in our lives even though, I repeat, it was FREE for everybody involved. Unlike the lone day trip we took once to the Mont St. Michel, which required renting a bus and therefore our families to pay some money for us to go on that trip, all but guaranteeing that the poor kids from the housing projects across form my house would be left out (and left out they were).

This is a very classist story, as you can see, which also doubles as a racist and xenophobic one because many of the kids in the projects were of arab or of gypsy descent; yet the majority of the poorest of the poor were white children whose parents used to be day laborers from the country who had migrated to the city looking for work. They shortly had found themselves massively unemployed when the local blast furnace, truck factory and small appliances factory had all closed their doors within the same decade. These were the French equivalent of US "white trash", if you will, people with no perspective of ever changing their lives in a positive way, being looked down in the same condescending way as "white trash" people are in the US.
Maybe some of their children might have liked to look at art, but they were denied the knowledge that art even existed when they went to school. They simply were never told of the existence of the free museum no more than a 7 minutes walk away. During the "Drawing class" we merely participated in handicrafts, and were never showed any real art reproductions that I can remember of.**

As for myself I had that semi-underground art life, going to the local art school were we'd be taken to museums and would go on day trips to Paris see the Pompidou and the Louvre (cost, 10 francs, about $1.50 now), and discovering art anyway I could, freely borrowing from the the art school library which proudly boasted at the time a collection of about 2,000 books. When my parents took us on vacation I would try to go visit art museums where, more often than not, entrance was free for under-18.
Of course a lot of my formative years were spent looking at a lot of crap, bad derivative AbEx French art from the 1950s, terrible academic works from the 19th century, conflating art with illustration with graphic design and comics, and generally going through a really haphazard way of gathering knowledge: I had no understanding of art history as something chronological and geographical, and there wasn't much in term of documentation to lay my hands on in these pre-internet day. You couldn't even regularly find a national newspaper in my hometown then, let alone an art magazine. This has fortunately changed, but it was rather bleak at the time.  As I grew older I became interested in music as well and thanks to it I expanded my horizons when musicians mentioned their interest in, I don't know, Viennese decadent painters, Russian Constructivists or Fluxus and Dada.

I soon reached adulthood and went away to college to study art history. As I reached the dreaded age of 18 that should have barred me from year-round free access to museums, the French Ministry of Culture made the "free admission for everybody every Sunday" disappear and with a magical influx of canny PR reduced it to ONLY THE FIRST SUNDAY OF EVERY MONTH. But advertised for it, so the French people whose taxpayers money fully funds their national museums were made to believe it was an incredible progress, because most of them never knew in the fist place they used to have 52 free days a year instead of the now measly 12 ones.
 I should have been bitter, and I was on behalf of all art-inclined French citizens, but individually it didn't change anything for me because as an art history student at the Louvre, I was awarded the magic card that allowed me unlimited access to French museums. And boy, did I take advantage of it.
 Later on, as I worked in various art-related positions, I almost always got some sort of pass to get in for free at most museums, and when I didn't, I often knew someone working inside the place who would let me in. As a result, I have had the privilege of almost never paying at a museum pretty much my whole life until very recently.
I can attest it changes the way you look at art a lot when you don't have to pay dearly just to get in. It requires far less advance planning, and whether you can spend only 30 minutes or an entire day inside a museum changes everything when you know you can get in pretty much whenever. Another advantage of getting free admission is that more often than not, you don't have to wait in line to get in, which is not negligible when visiting popular tourist museums such as MoMA, the Pompidou or the Louvre. But what it truly means is binge-looking at artworks, which makes you build a fantastic visual memory, and of course can only deepen your understanding of art.

World-famous French museum that used to be free for everybody every Sunday of the month and free for children under 18 year-round when I was a child. Image lifted from wikipedia.

This lifelong experience should make me an apologist and a militant advocate for unlimited free admission to everybody at all museums.
And in theory I would want it that way, yes.
There's no reason people should be denied the same access I've had to art, especially if they have a craving for it and live in poverty.
But after two decades of working at museums and talking with colleagues, I am not so sure anymore.

For one thing, as I've pointed out above, even when it's free, the population that should logically be the target of this policy almost never takes advantage of it, for lack of what I'd call intellectual access (Bourdieu had written eloquently about the issue pretty much all his life, so I'll refer you to his books). What you get are the same people who would come anyway, except they come more often. There is an increase of regular visitors as well, the ones who are not art cognoscenti and who tend to come mostly if there's access to a blockbuster exhibition and who bring their entire families, but it's hard to say if really deprived people come (because museums rarely have the means to do statistical surveys of their audience).
Some museums try like crazy to have a generous outreach policy and invite deprived populations to visit, but museums can only be the equivalent of the band-aid on an amputated limb when schools and the mainstream medias don't have a systemic, generous and sophisticated approach to art.

It has become rather trendy in American art circles over the last couple of years to ask for free access to museums for all, at least to permanent collections the way they do it in the UK. The rationale goes that it would make art more accessible (never mind most American museums always have at least one day or portion of a day a week where admission is free) and also that entrance fees account for a very low portion of a museum budget. But US museums, unlike European museums, are not government-supported and can usually ill-afford to open for free.
The Hammer Museum just announced that it would soon be offering year-round free admissions to everyone, which is fabulous but possible only because of the generosity of a big donor.
Because even when the ticket fees only account for about 6% of your overall budget, if you get rid of them you have to find these 6% elsewhere, and typically donors or government authorities don't give a shit about your money woes if they don't meet their political or narcissist agenda, so your roof is going to be leaking for a while and letting humidity get into your storage space for a few years until you manage to convince someone to act. Meanwhile, you artworks will be irremediably damaged.
Or, you won't be able to pay your security guards overtime, so your free admission everyday means that in effect, you are going to have to close the museum  at 5 PM in addition to having to close it two full days a week, making sure that nobody but schoolchildren on a day trip (you know, the ones my schools never organized when I was a child), passing tourists or retirees are going to be able to visit your museum. And so your overall attendance numbers are going to drop, making it hard to convince whoever has their hands on the purse' strings to untie them for expanding the collection or organizing ambitious exhibitions and therefore expand your audience, etc, etc.

A random picture I took  a few years back of a Robert Gober sculpture, just to make a break in that big block of text.

Another dirty secret, and something I can only say is based on empirical evidence (my own experience as well as things colleagues from other museums told me) is that at every museum, when there is a free admission day, it is the day when we observe BIG spikes in vandalism.
Vandalism can be inadvertent as well as voluntary, from someone backing out into an artwork while trying to avoid a rowdy group of people gesticulating wildly around another one, to somebody taking their ballpoint pen (these things should be banned forever from the surface of Earth) and deciding to deface your one and only Matisse in the collection, the one that would sell for a gazillion dollars should it be unloaded on the open market, and ruin it forever. Vandalism can be your kid eating some piece of chocolate candy and wiping their face and hands on a 17th century tapestry, or some moronic teenager trying to unscrew a vitrine from its base (which is why we glue the screws, ha). It often manifests itself in people trying to steal something small and being unsuccessful, irreparably damaging for all eternity a lovely little Renaissance portrait, for example.
Even though every museum has "do not touch artifacts" signs everywhere, for some reason all Hell breaks loose on free admission day, and visitors who would normally never been caught dead shitting in public on their host's carpet when invited to dinner at new acquaintances' do just that once inside a museum.
I mean, seriously, change a diaper inside a gallery and leave the dirty diaper on a sculpture?
A friend of mine was seriously envisioning a museum policy where you'd fine people up to $200 if caught touching artworks AND they'd be banned for life from the premises. I have to say I love the idea, though I'm pretty sure it's unenforceable. Pretty much every museum person I relayed the idea to found it fabulous, so maybe it might come near you in a not so distant future.

The result of this type of assholish behavior ends up costing lots of money to a museum that never has enough to begin with (do you have an idea how much regular museum staff make?) but also wastes everybody's time, from the security guards to the conservators to the preparators to the curators. And if we're talking about a temporary exhibition with works on loans, it guarantees that if it is a loaned artwork that has been damaged the lender will never again accept to lend the institution anything in the future. So, if free admission days bring in more vandalism and more damages, I'm not sure it's worth making the policy year-round, but truth be told we'd need to see statistics from museums that have switched from 1 or 2 free days a week (or a month, like French museums) to year-round to see what the consequences are on the budgeting, the vandalism, and if it shows a marked spike in attendance or not.

All museums are different of course, so something that can work relatively smoothly at a big institution would be a catastrophic policy at a small one. I've recently read something about a small local European museum where the total yearly budget for the institution (including salaries, utility bills, building maintenance) is only one third of the current LACMA's director's annual salary.
This museum used to have a free admission day only one day in the middle of the week, but had been recently forced to move it to Sunday per its government  mandatory policy, resulting in a very problematic deficit for its overall budget. The situation resulted in a spat between the museum's director and their Minister of Culture;  it is unclear as of now what will happens but it looks like the director is going to lose their job while no additional money will be provided by the government to patch up the budget. Hardly an ideal situation.

Now from a museum's point of view, the question of free admission days could be solved ideally if there was free money growing from trees that could make sure there are enough security guards in the galleries so the artworks are safe; and if there were some magical pheromones you could spray on visitors in the lobby so they'd be on their best behavior once inside the galleries.
In the meantime, they have to make do with whatever their current local financial and administrative conditions are, which more often than not are downright shitty. Offering some sort of privileged membership that gets you in without waiting in lines and makes sure you can get, say, the equivalent of 6 yearly visits for the price of 4 is a sort of median resolution but it's not really effective to draw in the most underprivileged people, who usually can barely afford the public transportation fares to go to work, so for them a yearly membership is unattainable.

An old picture of my cat looking awesome just because.

But aside from these really thorny situations, I am not sure that a year-round free admission to museums would make them more accessible to everybody. You see, what it does is privilege people like me (admittedly I'm broke, but not exactly deprived) and pretty much every art amateur who already has an attraction, an interest and a connection to art, in effect mostly middle-class people who would someway or other visit museums anyway, maybe just a little less often but that's all.  Now if we have to pay to get inside museums, ideally it should be around the price of a movie ticket maybe, or even far less (something symbolic, around or under $5?)  but far less than sports tickets or amusement parks entrance fees - which is a bit ironic because many people who pay for these without grumbling or even thinking would protest at the idea of spending around $10 to get inside a museum.
But what I'm getting at is that the idea of a year-round free admission policy at all museums is rather hypocritical in the sense that the people it would benefit the most is us, the art world wankers who get all worked up on Jerry Saltz's FB page (that is, you, personally I'm not that much into his writings), we the art cognoscenti who want to have our cake and eat it.
There's this commonly held belief in the so-called art world that we are the primary audience of museums, when in effect the larger mass of people are generally tourists coming into town, and sometimes local residents who come for a blockbuster exhibition. This is not to say that art people don't come, but proportionally they are a smaller audience, if dedicated, and they're not the audience that needs education and guidance, even though most curators have them in mind when they design an exhibition. So, wanting free admission to museums is a bit self-serving for the art world when pretending it is necessary to attract an underprivileged audience.

 The underprivileged audience certainly should have an easy and comfortable access to the museum, but in order for them to even know they can come visit for free and be treated like valued guests, not as some sort of barely-tolerated charity case necessary for everybody to keep a good conscience; the educational work has to be done elsewhere first, and that is at school. AND in the mainstream media, and when I say the mainstream media I don't mean the lone professional critics at the NYT and the LAT who cater to us, but something a bit simpler.
I don't know where people get their information these days (still the TV? only on the internet? The Sunday Parade supplement that comes with local papers?) but as long as the only mainstream discourse about art in the media is reduced to "these stolen artworks worth millions" and "this auction result record", and "multimillion-dollars artwork damaged by vandals",  it's unlikely people whose only notion of visual art is linked to an unimaginable monetary value can ever feel any meaningful connection to it.
I don't have any easy solution to this issue, at an age when most public school systems are eradicating their arts and music programs, when the teachers have to train their students to pass tests and exams rather than teach them the love of learning, and when many of the school children themselves come to school on an empty stomach.
I am not even certain I have a point to make, except that most museums nowadays can ill-afford a year-round free admission policy, that such a policy, should it exist, would mostly benefit the middle-class and not the deprived population it aims to serve, and that maybe this deprived population has more urgent needs that should be addressed as well if we want to make them discover the wonders of art. They're the ones who've been having to bear the brunt of the recession we're still in, the ones whose very daily survival is constantly threatened by benefits cuts (not only in the US, but in the UK as well where there's currently a hateful class war being waged against the poor by their own government).  It's difficult to appreciate even the greatest art on an empty stomach. It's impossible to access it when you don't know it exist.

*One of my friends from another school was kicked out of the regular pathway to high school and sent to vocational school instead but for one just-below-the-passing-grade-C in physics and chemistry, despite good grades everywhere else, better than mine actually. His crime was to be the half-arab bastard child of an illiterate cleaning lady who didn't know she could appeal the school decision on his behalf. Wherever you are, Dominique G. I hope you thrive and are happy.
**Post-car accident my memory can be rather murky, I do not recall any instance of seeing any slide or image of art during that class, just to be given some sort of exercises to complete, but maybe I'm totally off base. The teacher was cool and I liked that class, but I don't recall it being anything art historical or designed to develop some sort of art appreciation.

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