For a baseball card-collecting Little Leaguer from suburbia, this was a very big deal. I was fascinated not just by the latest 1984 Topps release (I dressed up as a 1984 Topps card for Halloween that year), but by the history of the game as represented by the your-name-in-lights 1952 Topps set and the beautifully-designed 1933 Goudey series (below). I even had a few 1933 Goudeys myself, of no-name players whose affordable cards were known as ‘commons.’ I thought it was pretty amazing that I could hold something like that in my hands, that a little cardboard object was historical Americana and that I could experience the past first-hand.
So when the Green family went to New York, of course I wanted to see the world’s greatest collection of baseball cards, a collection given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Jefferson Burdick. As I write this, I find it kind of weird that 13-year-old me was so set on making an appointment in a dark study room in an art museum a continent away. I remember thinking that going from San Francisco to New York to see the Burdick Collection at the Met was a grand journey, about the grandest journey a Little League first baseman could dream of.
Maybe I insisted to my dad that we go to the Met because I was familiar with art museums, because I’d been to them before, because they were places where anyone could go to look at the past, at beautiful things that were part of our shared history. I certainly remembered that my mother dragged my little brother and I to quite a few art museums. I don’t remember the Greens going to art museums much after she died, but thanks to mom, I knew that art museums were special places full of special things — and that they were open to the public. I might have been just a wee lad when the Greens went to New York, but if I wanted to see something at the Metropolitan, by golly I could call and make an appointment to see something at the Metropolitan.
Once arrived at the Met, my dad and I asked how to find the little study room at which I could see the Burdick Collection. A guard showed us the way. A side door opened. We walked through it. Even though there was probably only one thing 13-year-olds made study room-appointments for, a guard asked us why we were there. I shyly told them I was there for the baseball cards. I spent the rest of the afternoon paging through binders of colorful, old cardboard. Each card had been glued into place, an unthinkable faux-pas in today’s collecting world.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I think that visit had a lot to do with how I look at art now. For many people who love art, the image itself, the slide, the JPEG, the whatever, is plenty. If they know what an artwork looks like, that’s enough. They don’t need to see the real thing.
Ever since I became interested in art, in college, I’ve had an interest in the art-objects themselves. I love standing before the real deal, soaking in its physical actualness. I think my passion for objects stems from the afternoon I spent with the Burdick Collection, seeing with my own eyes treasures such as the most famous baseball card of all time, the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner (above).
If I was a kid today, I don’t know if my family would make that trip to the Met. Last Friday at about noon, the hour at which American institutions try to sneak bad news past the public, the Metropolitan sent out a press release announcing that it is raising its requested admissions charge to $25, effective July 1. The Met, the wealthiest art museum in America’s wealthiest city, will now ask a family of four to pay $84 to enter. This is just the latest in a half-decade-long run-up in admission charges at the Met: As Christopher Knight noted on Twitter, the Met’s admissions increases have badly outpaced the rate of inflation. Since 2006, inflation in the U.S. has run about 10 percent. At the Metropolitan, admission has increased 25 percent over that same term.
True, because of the Metropolitan’s long-ago land deal with the City of New York, the museum can only ask people to pay that. You can still enter by paying a nickel. I suspect that when confronted with a $84 request, more families will pay less.
But still, the Metropolitan’s increase is short-sighted and wrong-hearted: It will likely lead to fewer young people being exposed to the world’s cultural history, to art, to objects, to peoples and ideas that lie outside the narrowness of a 13-year-old’s experience. The Metropolitan is not a business. It is not a movie theater or Yankee Stadium. It is an educational non-profit. Part of a non-profit’s mission is to act in the public interest and in the case of art museums, to provide public access. Fortunately many, many American art museums realize this: Museums in St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Toledo and plenty of other places have prioritized free admission. The Metropolitan is leading in the wrong direction. Instead of increasing access to its collections, it is sending the message that it’s OK to price out the middle class.