Far from the madding crowd, or: Surviving the new world of art museums

On renewing my Art Museum membership

7 minute read
Paul Schulenburg's 'Art Lover': Quest for quiet contemplation.
Paul Schulenburg's 'Art Lover': Quest for quiet contemplation.
I procrastinated an entire month this past November while deciding whether to renew my "supporter" level membership at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Nightly calls and weekly mailings from the Art Museum's marketing staff sought to persuade, but still I dawdled.

I've been a loyal member of this institution for many years now— since I first visited with my parents when I was six. My youngest daughter is named after the Saint Gaudens goddess who presides over the Museum's Great Hall.

All that history and a sizable sum in membership and art history course fees aside, I am now thinking more (like everyone else) about getting good value for my arts dollar. Alas, the environment has taught me to think this way.

I have watched the fee for the "supporter" level rise steadily in the last decade from double digits to today's pricey $225. This level of membership, once a veritable bargain for the arts lover, entitles a member and companion to enter without fee many superb museums throughout the U.S. Someone who visits, say, New York or Chicago several times a year can see collections at the Metropolitan, the Frick, and the Art Institute of Chicago without charge. That can represent a significant savings in entrance fees. The Met, for instance, "suggests" a $25 fee for each visit.

Competition in New York

This deal may be especially attractive to a Philadelphia patron who is tiring of the steady diet of Impressionist and Post Impressionist art that our Art Museum has offered of late. No doubt this exhibition schedule has been designed to attract large audiences who'll pay hefty fees to see this popular art. The Museum must meet its constantly rising budget. So purchasing a "Supporter" membership enables a Philadelphian to continue funding the Art Museum in Philadelphia while enjoying at no added expense an expanded arts diet in other cities.

But the Metropolitan Museum in New York must meet budgets too. No doubt its administrators have become conscious that large numbers of Philadelphians are visiting them without charge by using their Art Museum passes. Thus the Met has recently distributed literature to Philadelphians and others offering "out of town" memberships at only $70. The Museum of Modern Art has also offered similar memberships at similar prices.

So all of the sudden the $225 spent on the Art Museum might not seem much like good value, especially if you happen not to be spending much time there any more.

Plastic Van Gogh plates

If you're keen on, say, experiencing a dance party in the Art Museum's Great Hall rather than in a local discotheque; and if you regularly participate in arts and crafts programs with your children; or if you live in the Fairmount section of the city and think of your local museum as regular meeting place, cinema and café; of if you're new to art appreciation and want to get to know a collection in a general way— well, then, membership at the Art Museum maybe a good buy, even at these new high prices.

But if you want to experience the best of art in the best of circumstances, you may have to rethink where you're likely to find it in the future. If even the most remote corners of Philadelphia's large encyclopedic Art Museum will heretofore be filled with restless children or chatty adults comparing their plastic Van Gogh sunflower plates from the gift shop, how much time will a connoisseur want to spend there?

Some museums have indeed become marketplaces, schoolhouses, dance halls, restaurants, wedding venues, etc. But where is the art in all of this? Where are the hallowed spaces of yesteryear, where a thoughtful person, in relative solitude, could properly learn to love art?

Revenge of the docents

So now the question has become whether the serious arts lover will want to help fund this new museum experience with expensive membership fees. Here we thought we were supporting an institution dedicated to art, but it seems more and more we are supporting popular and commercial activities instead. Alas, much of what passes for arts "education" these days could more rightly be called arts "entertainment." Personally I don't want to support that.

Museum patrons may not be the only people rethinking their commitment to such an enterprise. As museums evolve from temples of contemplation to entertainment emporiums, new problems will arise, requiring new solutions. For example:

In years past, retirees and other interested persons— often potential donors to the Museum— might apply to receive two years of Museum-sponsored art history training so that they might eventually lead tours for visitors. This can be gratifying work in the right conditions, work worth doing without pay. Once graduated from the Art Museum training, these docents, in addition to developing and leading tours, must also sit at the membership desk at the entrance to the Museum where they greet visitors, supply buttons, and answer questions.

Given the logistics of the Museum's entranceway— originally designed as a temple of contemplation rather than a rock concert venue— visitors tend to pile up at the desk seeking attention. On more than one occasion I have watched these docents blithely converse with each other, turning away from the approaching line of eager visitors. They seem to contrive all sorts of reasons to delay acknowledging visitors. I suspect no one told them, when they received the honor of participating in this docent program, that they would need to develop the efficiency of a Wal-mart cashier.

Provocative lunch programs

Nor is it a good thing that this brave new world of museology keeps the arts community in a state of permanent anxiety. Who knows what new marketing strategy will be needed in the coming year, and what new systems will need to be designed? Will museum energies be spent increasingly on management issues rather than curatorial issues? Will a fickle public ultimately find some other way to spend their leisure hours, leaving our museums in a halfway dumbed-down state?

Regardless of these dismal foretellings, a few Philadelphia museums are intelligently preserving their legacies by sponsoring what I would call deep culture. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, for instance, in addition to hosting this season's Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibition, continues to offer a roster of thought-provoking "Art at Lunch" lectures. The material introduced at these lectures often significantly enhances the visual experience to be found in the galleries.

The Academy also has partnered with the Kelly Writer's House at Penn to conduct a book club where a selection is read each month by participants, discussed and then considered in the context of particular art works in the galleries. Juxtapose the text of The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, or Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, by Mary Dearborn, with paintings in the galleries and you have the potential for a mind-stretching discussion.

Insight at Woodmere

The Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, under the direction of William Valerio, has also instituted some excellent offerings for serious arts lovers. The Woodmere's recent showcases for local artists, like "Elaine Kurtz: A Retrospective," have crackled with a new level of curatorial insight that I haven't seen in a while. Woodmere's Friday evenings showcase local jazz talent, while Sunday afternoons feature classical fare. The Woodmere also sponsors interesting lectures apropos to its exhibitions. Some, like the lecture/concerts offered by Maestro Karl Middleman, present selected art and music in juxtaposition for an enhanced artistic experience.

Both Pennsylvania Academy and the Woodmere offer vibrant children's programs, but these are peripheral, as they should be. The spaces where these museums hold their music concerts are appropriate for the size of the audience. That can't be said for the concerts held at the Art Museum, however. One always feels in the crush there.

So while the band plays on at the Art Museum and its like, arts lovers who march to the beat of a different drummer may have to find alternative venues. Perhaps in the near term the small galleries, both private and public, will best be able to foster the opportunity for the real art experience. After all, think of all the art you might buy over the years with the savings you glean by canceling your excessively expensive memberships at mega-museums.

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