Monday, June 27, 2011

pricey vs. priceless

Do museums have a kind of moral obligation ... to be free?
(NY Times, June 11)

Is it fair that we the public must pay to enter these temples of culture? Museums are supported by government grants after all. And museums make acquisitions with taxpayer dollars so we're basically paying to see stuff we already own anyway. Right?

Well... not really. If you want to play the "this is our public property" game, don't forget that if you want these paintings/sculptures/giant pandas/redwood forests/jelly fish tanks to be "yours", you need to be paying people to take care of them, protect them, and help you learn about why you want them to begin with. And as for the "I already paid for this with my taxes" argument goes, well that doesn't really work either. We subsidize all kinds of things with our tax dollars. You still have to buy cornflakes and gasoline and pay tolls, and yes, even admission fees. All you did was help knock the admission fee down a little for yourself. Your trip to the Met now costs you $25 instead of $25.01.

Because sure, about a couple hundred dollars of your federal income taxes went to "science/education" this year (most of which goes to the space program and Pell grants). But, divide up your remaining sum amongst 17,500 museums in the United States and you'll see just how generous that penny I gave you is. Of course this is really sloppy; I'm only using federal income taxes and neglecting state and sales tax and of course museums don't each get an annual check from the government. But I think you catch my drift. Our taxes get used for a lot of things. There are a lot of museums. Your taxes pay for plenty of things only part way and museums admission fees fall into that category (wheredidmytaxdollarsgo.com).

But it's not just about dollars and cents. We museum folks seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with the value of our collections as it relates to cost. I don't think it does us much good as museums to simultaneously explain that we are so extraordinary that we need to charge $25 to get in and that our offerings are as essential to the human experience as the very air we breathe. Hard to justify charging that much for air, y'all. Let's get our story straight.

At some point we have to decide whether the museum experience is a fancy luxury, a once-in-a-while treat, a daily expense, a subsidized staple, or a god-given right. Can't have it two ways.

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