Museum Jealousy

The MoMA is swathed in wealth. From the gleaming white walls to the masterpieces hanging on its walls to the newly-renovated building itself, the MoMA oozes money.

The sixth floor of the museum houses the special exhibitions. Currently there are two exhibits on display up here---the life work of Edvard Munch as well as contemporary architecture in Spain. Both exhibitions come equipped with an audio tour and an exhibit tour book that is available at the museum store. The artworks displayed here are on loan from institutions from around the world; undoubtedly, the loan and design costs for both exhibits number in the millions.

Where does all of this money come from? Well for one, it costs 20 bucks for an adult admission ticket. Eight dollars is shaved off for students (they only have to pay $12). Seniors get a further discount and children under 16 who are accompanied by an adult don't have to pay a penny. So if the MoMA gets between 2-3 million visitors per year, we could assume that the museum makes between 25-55 million per year on tickets alone. Lest we forget the wealthy MoMA donors tha provide a lovely cushion of another 10-30 million (perhaps less, perhaps more).

All of this money makes my body teem with envy because the museum I work for, the National Air and Space Museum in DC, is strapped for cash. Because NASM is a federal institution, it receives primary funding from the government. Our yearly allowance from Congress, however, only provides enough money to cover the salaries of its employees and general maintenance fees, like electricity and plumbing. This means that if the museum wants to create new exhibitions, the curators have to seek outside funding. Sure, sure, it is easy to assume that lots of donors will step up to the plate to help the Smithsonian, but the truth is that most donors want to give their money to high-brow institutions like the National Gallery, the Met, or the MoMA. Museums like the Air & Space lack the refinement and sophistication that embody institutions of art.

Because money is so tight at NASM, there are some exhibitions in the museum that haven't been changed since the building opened to the public in 1976. That's thirty years ago! The ever-shrinking budget weighs heavily over my own department where the color printer is reserved for special printing purposes. Even the cost of paper and ink come at a high price around here.

A simple solution would be to charge an admission fee. Because the museum often attracts 10 million visitors a year, a fee of ten dollars would translate into a whopping 100 million for the museum! Minus 50 million for general maintenance costs and that gives the museum 50 million bucks to make new and innovative exhibitions. With exhibitions costing an upwards of $25 million these days, even 50 mil doesn't sound like much. But it's more than what we have now. (The new "America on the Move" at the National Museum of American History cost $22 million.)

But alas, the museum will never charge a fee because it is a federal institution. One of my co-workers has also pointed out that if we decide to charge a fee, Congress will diminish our allotted budget by whatever we make. So it's kind of a catch 22.

Mostly, it makes me sad that the Smithsonian Institution is recognized as the premier educational resources in the world, but its own museums are in deep financial straits. We want to be the best that is out there, but being the best takes money---and that's the one thing we lack in abundance.