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.