The Met and its “recommended” admission fees

As recently featured in the Huffington Post and NPR’s The Two-Way blog, there has surfaced a controversy and lawsuit about the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s $25 admission fee. The controversy stems from the fact the $25 is actually a recommended donation for admission pursuant to an amendment to an agreement between the city and the museum’s owners in 1970. Those who wish to get into the Met still have to pay something, even if only a penny. (The original 1893 agreement, prior to the 1970 amendment, required free admission for at least five days and two evenings per week in exchange for grants and free use of the land.)

ArtInfo has an interesting article from 2011 which, interestingly, was written right before the increase from $20 to $25 in the suggested/recommended admission fee. From that article comes this dandy quote:

According to the New York Times, Met director Thomas P. Campbell is justifying this cruel cost bump with the argument that post economic-downturn, visitors have been proffering less and less. Apparently, while in boomtimes the per capita contribution goes up annually, in the past fiscal year it’s plummeted a whole 16 cents. So, yes, people are paying less, and your plan is to raise the price — brilliant idea!

I support pay-as-you-can admission fees on principle. They help bring visual and performing arts to an audience which might otherwise just stay home watching cookie-cutter broadcast TV. And society needs more art and more people exposed to art. On the flip side of it, trying to pass off the $25 recommended donation for admission as a requirement is a bit underhanded and could even be seen as thinly-disguised greed, certainly not something that our museums should be doing whether in New York City or elsewhere. I think that is the crux of the lawsuit, and while in general it’s bad form to sue a non-profit, others have opined that the Met isn’t hurting for money.

As examples, see the Met’s online ticketing page and the Met’s guest passes page. There is no “recommended” about the $25 (or discounted amounts of $17 for seniors or $12 for students) at either page. The only way to get a guest pass for less than $25, is to get ten or more for $20 each (total payment: $200+). This would appear to go against the spirit of the 1970 amended agreement between the museum and the city (though the online ticketing page does have a disclaimer if you look in the often-ignored legalese at the bottom).

At the same time, I recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect free admission to the Met. This is not at all what I am suggesting. Locally, we have free admission at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for one night per week underwritten by a corporate sponsor. I appreciate this, and I recognize that it requires quite a bit of money to do something like it.

Looking at the big picture, it’s possible that the Met just doesn’t like the agreement they are stuck in any more. If that’s truly the case, then it should be renegotiated. But, meanwhile, the agreement with the city should be honored both in letter and in spirit, and the fact you can get in for less than the recommended donation should be made clearer—not buried in legalese.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and its ticket prices

A recent entry in the Houston Press blog Art Attack takes a very dim view of the admission fees at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The post begins with a commentary about the (mis)adventure of artist Payam Sharifi, originally from Houston but now based in Paris, France:

Recently, when Sharifi arrived at one of the museum’s special exhibitions, he paid $18, a typical fee for one of MFAH’s ticketed shows. When he wanted to see another temporary exhibit, he was asked to fork over an additional $18.

“I said, ‘Are you serious? You don’t offer a combo ticket?’ They said ‘no’ and I had to pay $36, more than the equivalent at the Louvre, MoMA [New York’s Museum of Modern Art] or any other museum that I can recall,” says Sharifi.

The Louvre’s combination ticket, which includes access to permanent collections and temporary exhibits, costs approximately $20. MoMA’s $25 price tag, instituted in September 2011, includes admission to special exhibitions, audio programs, films and gallery talks.

Why would that be? Let’s dig a little deeper.

One reason the Louvre in particular is able to charge a low rate is that the French government, at least as recently as 2008, supplies a little over half of the museum’s budget (US$180 million of US$350 million). New York’s Museum of Modern Art is not dependent on government funding at all, but maintains a budget with around US$155 million in expenses in 2011 with slightly more in revenue (see page 18). MFAH‘s budget is a paltry $52 million.

There’s also visitor count to consider. The Louvre attracts about 5.5 million visitors per year, and is the most visited museum in the world. MoMA gets 2.5 million visitors per year. MFAH gets only 2 million, and it’s unclear how many of those qualify for free general admission: everyone visiting on Thursday (supported by a grant), children under 5, and library card holders aged 6 to 18.

At first glance, I’m surprised the ticket prices aren’t even higher at MFAH; intuition tells me there’s probably more to it, as building upkeep, labor, and general expenses involved in running a museum can’t possibly be more expensive here, in general, than they are in NYC or Paris.

It’s possible MFAH could find a way to lower ticket prices, but it’s a topic on which I’d have to do a lot more research to do for a typical post on this blog. I’d certainly like to see it happen, if only to see fewer posts of this sort from local journalists and bloggers. Houston’s flagship arts museum should not be more expensive than the Louvre and for it to be so jeopardizes Houston’s standing as a regional culture center.

Warm bodies are still smarter than silicon (When “the cloud” delivers a thunderstorm, part 2)

Recently, I posted about Dylan M and his sudden unexplained loss of his Google account. The aftermath of the story is given in a follow up to the previous article on Consumerist. While it is nice to see a happy ending, the truth as to why Dylan had his account locked in the first place is yet another cautionary tale about trusting cloud-based services.

Quoting Dylan as quoted by Consumerist:

I am a former art student and for the past year I have made my living as an artist. Three years ago I had been preparing a compilation of images to participate in an art show entitled “The Evolution of Sex” featuring a set of images, not my own, which I felt depicted the increasing violence and growing absurdity of pornography over the past 2000 years.

The image that they considered a violation of the Terms of Service is not among them and was more explicit, but it was created by the same photographer as the overtly suggestive last image, whose work is apparently well known and contentious for the obvious reasons of skirting legal boundaries.

Translation: this photog’s work pushes the line of what’s considered kiddie porn. (It would seem that Dylan’s account was flagged simply because he had a picture from a photographer known to test the limits, caught by an automated scan. I’ll get back to this point at the end.)

The only thing that is aggravating is that in the same folder they flagged, which was also titled “The Evolution of Sex,” are images of well known ancient Pompeii fertility statues, pre-historic examples including the Venus of Willendorf, a page from a French anti-pornography series from the 1800’s, one version of a common and well known advertisement that has been snuck into phonebooks nationwide since the 1950’s that is subversively pornographic (check your phonebook, or Snopes, it’s still very common in the UK), the cover from an issue of Rapeman, an infamous Japanese comic book about a superhero who rapes the wives of his enemies as retribution and can also be hired by corporations to rape the wives of thieving employees, and a picture of a vending machine on a street in Japan which claims to sell used young girls underwear.

Google employs an automated system to scan user storage for violations of their ToS and in the process erroneously flagged one of the images in the folder as child pornography… I am not angry at Google about this, as some might suggest… Google was unable to speak with me about it for legal reasons and it was Vic Gundotra who fast-tracked the appeal process once he learned of the situation through Twitter and personally investigated. When I asked him what would have happened had he not intervened he said the case would have gone through the regular appeals process and may have taken weeks to be sorted out.

Translation: We’re Google, we know what’s child porn better than you do, and even if we occasionally seem to be wrong, you can do without your Google account for a few weeks, right?

I can understand Google policing their servers for child pornography. However, I get the impression this was not reviewed by a human. It’s obvious that Dylan is not a pedophile, but an artist. It infringes upon Dylan’s free speech and free expression for Google to be “trigger happy” and assume that one picture from this photographer had to be kiddie porn based completely on that photog’s reputation.

So in some ways it’s worse than I thought. Put an image Google decides not to like on your Picasa account, and one could wind up losing one’s entire Google account, not just Picasa. I think that’s a bit too heavy handed and serves to underscore the need to make backups off of the cloud. There is something about plugging in a USB flash drive, copying data to it, taking it back out, and actually touching the physical medium one’s data is stored on. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know.

Google definitely needs to find better ways to handle situations like this. I think just locking an account with no explanation is inexcusable. We should not have to do what Dylan did, should the same thing happen to us. At the very least, I will probably never use Picasa after reading about this, and will back up my Flickr and other photo service accounts on a more regular basis from now on.

A thin line between vandalism and art: the graffiti controversy

CultureMap Houston recently reported on Houston’s new Graffiti Mobile and a photo opportunity featuring the truck and Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The story describes the event and contains a few key quotes from Mayor Parker which I would like to address:

“I have mixed emotions about being here,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “This is a great new graffiti truck and we are going to do wonderful things with it. The bad news is that we have to do it at all… As we get more aggressive, they [graffiti artists] seem to get wilier and find new places to put graffiti.”


“This is a feel-good event,” Parker said, “but since the media is here, I think we need to make a really strong point: Graffiti is a crime. We spend tens of thousands — in fact, I think it’s about a million dollars a year cleaning up graffiti. Those are your tax dollars we’re spending.”

A previous story on Culturemap Houston takes a different tack and features an interview with well-known urban artist GONZO247 of Aerosol Warfare. These quotes in particular stand out (from Carolyn Casey, the education program director for Aerosol Warfare):

“Awhile back, they [City Council] had a meeting open to the public, and they specifically invited all the art people and us because they said they wanted to discuss the graffiti problem,” Casey says. “We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren’t open to new ideas, and said that as long as they’re spending money on abatement, they’re not going to spend any money on programs.

“But the city’s going to continue spending money on abatement if they don’t have a real solution for it. We see vandalism as different from art, and they consider them to be one.”

I think it’s rather cowardly and pathetic on the part of our city’s government to blur the lines between vandalism and art. There is a huge difference; the most obvious component of the difference between the two is the consent of the owner of the property being “decorated.” If the owner approves, it’s art; if the owner has not consented, it’s more than likely vandalism. I would usually define most lower forms of graffiti such as “tagging” as vandalism. In fact “tagging” is usually what comes to mind when most people think of graffiti. I believe this is a shame as there is a huge difference between legitimate street art and marking one’s “turf” with spray paint. The latter is more directly compared to the behavior of animals who urinate to mark their territory. Unfortunately, spray paint is more visibly noxious and permanent, as well as more difficult to clean up.

I do not support vandalism. I support art, and more importantly I support public awareness of the differences between vandalism and art. If the government of the City of Houston cannot understand the difference between the two, I believe they have failed us all.

Suicide barriers and landmarks: my thoughts on the Golden Gate Bridge

A recent entry on poses the question of whether or not a suicide barrier should be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge:

I just saw a movie called “The Bridge” about all the suicides that take place at the Golden Gate and it was shocking to watch all those people leaping to their deaths…. Average number of jumpers is 1 every two weeks and the grand total now is well over 1200 people ages ranging from 80 to 14. It is the most popular location to commit suicide in the world. Yet, San Franciscans refuse to build a barrier (ala Eiffel Tower, Empire State building) because it would not look aesthetically pleasing.

The article concludes with an incompletely-attributed quote by Eve Meyer from this SF Chronicle article:

“When suicide becomes difficult,” Meyer says, “people do not switch to another method. They tend to get help.

Now the last part of the article is technically incorrect as the plan to build a barrier has been approved but not yet funded. We’ll get to that in a minute.

I admire art, including architecture. The Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful in its present form. But when a landmark becomes known for its suicides almost as much as its beauty, I feel it is absolutely, positively, patently devoid of good judgment to place the preservation of aesthetics above the preservation of human life.

Moving on…

The SF Chronicle article reveals how this could have been avoided when the Golden Gate Bridge was originally built. The original plans by chief engineer Joseph Strauss called for railings of a specific design at a height of 5&12frac; feet, which he believed would make the bridge suicide-proof.

Enter architect Irving Morrow, who was originally brought in to design the plazas and entryways. For some reason, he reduced the height to 4 feet, a decision with tragic consequences for over a thousand people who have chosen to end their lives at the bridge, and the thousands more surviving friends and family, in the decades since. What the heck could he have been thinking? The only possibility that makes much sense to me is that first, Strauss not clear enough in his original plans why the height was set where it was, and second, the change was made for primarily aesthetic reasons. If this is the case, we’ve found out the hard way in the decades since that looks can indeed kill.

So we’ve identified the problem. How to fix it?

This LA Times article from 2008 October documents that the plan to build steel netting below the bridge was approved, and was chosen as the least expensive alternative. From what I’ve been able to find out, it has yet to be built, assumably due to funding issues as documented in this SF Examiner article. The cost is estimated at $50 million with annual maintenance costs well under $100,000.

To say the least, I’m horrified. Funding issues? Maybe the beancounters standing in the way of a decades overdue fix to a flawed, suicide-friendly bridge should give their excuses to the surviving friends and family every time there’s yet another jumper. I’m pretty sure the money would be found rather hastily thereafter. Is $50 million a lot of money? Yes. But there’s no objective way to place a price tag on human lives. The first suicide prevented will make every dollar spent worth it.