Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

“Zoe Strauss” is a good start, PMA must do more

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The striking, sad irony of the exhibition “Zoe Strauss: 10 Years” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is that the people Strauss photographs cannot afford to go see the museum’s exhibition of her work.

Strauss’s pictures typically features people and communities on the margins of American life, people who aspire to the lower-middle-class and neighborhoods that have been forgotten by most Americans. [Image: Zoe Strauss, We Love Having You Here, Ocean Springs, MS, 2008. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

The PMA, along with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of America’s most class-exclusive museums. It costs a family of four $56 to enter the PMA and an almost-mandatory $10 or more to park a car. A family of four that wants to see the main exhibition on view must fork out $104 (plus parking). That’s beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of Philadelphia families. Along with those three peers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been on the vanguard of keeping great art and a great art collection inaccessible to the audience it’s supposed to serve. (Reminder: The PMA is not a business; it’s a non-profit with a mission statement that calls for it to “extend the reach” of art.)

For a couple days over the last week, Strauss, her roots in the community and her art have helped to dissolve the PMA’s insistence on exclusivity. Tickets to the Strauss opening, which sold out, were just $8. This past Monday, the PMA opened on a holiday Monday and was effectively free. Furthermore, the PMA has spread Strauss’s work throughout the city by partnering with two billboard companies to erect 54 billboards showing Strauss’s art. These are not ads for the show, they’re Strauss’s pictures out in the city.

To new PMA director Timothy Rub’s credit, “Zoe Strauss” was the first exhibit that he approved after becoming director. It was a great decision: It used important art that happened to be made by a Philadelphian to connect  the museum to its city and to audiences the museum has traditionally excluded.

But it is not enough for an art museum to show art that features audiences that the museum fails to welcome. Rub’s next step should be to address the PMA’s longstanding failure to fully live up to its mission, to ensure that the museum is accessible to the entire region. Rub and the PMA face a special imperative to address their admissions issue: The city of Philadelphia contributed $2.3 million in operating funds to the museum in fiscal year 2011 and another $2.4 million in capital funds. So long as the city’s taxpayers are a major contributor to the museum, the museum should be accessible to the city’s residents. [Image: Strauss, We Will Win, Las Vegas, 2004. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Fortunately, this is within the PMA’s reach: In its last fiscal year, the PMA brought in $3.9 million in admissions revenue. The museum’s operating expenses were $51 million. The PMA’s audience-restricting admissions fees made up a little more than seven percent of its revenue. Ergo, a director who values making art and his museum accessible to the broadest possible audience, a director who believes in better fulfilling his museum’s own mission, isn’t far from a major success.

Rub should start by making the PMA free to everyone under 21 years of age and to anyone with a student ID. Then he should start in on making sure that the rest of Philadelphia can enjoy their museum.

Related: My 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed about the PMA’s admissions fees. A personal story about why museums that charge high admissions fees are making a big mistake.

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  1. They will need a big sponsor like Target to do a free Sunday afternoon 12-6 PM . The Studio Museum of Harlem has it.

  2. Tyler Green says:

    Sponsors of such are nice, but there are many ways to address the issue.

  3. At least from the financial angle. Yes, the PMA needs to reach out more to the rest of the population. I think this is the start of change and Zoe is the driving force behind it. It was a wonderful opening with people of all walks of life . I asked a security guard who worked at the PMA that night if she has seen a party of this kind ever there and she say ”no this is the first one that ” the public” and such diverse crowd is ever allowed. I was proud to be there as a witness. It is a very good point Tyler to bring this out . More needs to be done. Philadelphia is way too focused in the mural culture as a compromise with the Inner City and now the institutions like PMA need to open its doors and embrace the whole city.

  4. stuart roberts says:

    zoe’s done a great job & for mr. rub it’s a start but the museum is an elitist (in the negative sense) place designed mainly for one time tourist visitors. even members have to pay another $24 if they want to see a “special exhibition” a second time (unlike at moma) which is condescending & insulting (in addition to being expensive.) also they seem to have ceded showing the work of black artist to pafa. zoe’s opening party was the most diverse crowd i’ve seen at pma (when it wasn’t their once a month free day)but the next day the nearly full auditorium at the artist talk was practically all white. of course, phila is built on segregation & it’s “art world” beyond the zoe phenomenon mirrors the city in that way.

  5. Justyna Badach says:

    The museum used to be free every sunday and free to all art students and their faculty in the city. A few years ago they changed that policy and raised their admission fees. I am not sure why this was done?

    I do know that many people who used to go the museum on a regular basis now can’t afford to, including my students. If younger people are not able to attend exhibitions and see the value of what the museum has to offer, the museum and the artists they champion will not have an audience in the future.

  6. Dick Whitman says:

    If you want to make the museum more accessible, eliminate discounts and charge everyone a lower rate of admission across the board. Everyone then has equal access and people don’t have to pay the exorbitant admission price of $16. No reason it should be above $10.

    Or cap/max out rates. A family pays no more than $40 regardless of number of dependents.

  7. […] as rainmakers for tourism or development. There has been little concurrent examination — least of all in Philadelphia — of how or if art should be made most accessible. Instead the question has been how to use […]

  8. […] not at all on this issue, rolled its eyes at the PMA’s egregious fees this past weekend. MAN’s fuller examination of the PMA’s admissions fee approach is here. [Image of the PMA via Flickr user Rob […]

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