Paying extra for viewing a single masterpiece

In the last Deep Thought Thursday I asked if you would pay $17 to see a single painting. I purposely did not provide arguments before or against the notion, nor did I provide you with more than a single link. Still, I’m surprised that such strong opinions were formed without knowing all of the facts. (Of the 36 comments to date, only one person mentions following the link and looking into the topic more in depth. A closer researcher might have caught a major error I made, which I'll confess to in a few paragraphs.)

It’s okay because that’s what I was looking for. I wanted your gut reaction to the idea of paying $17 to view a single masterpiece. In this case, we’re talking about La Velata (Woman with a Veil) by Renaissance master Raphael (dated 1516), which is on view at the Portland Art Museum this fall.

La Velata by Raphael

Of those who said No Thanks, these were popular reasons:

  • It reinforces the idea that art is elitist. (Some said art should be for the masses.)
  • I want more for my money. Add value–lecture, wine & cheese–and I might think about it.
  • Maybe not this painting, but I might consider paying $17 for something more to my liking.

So, it’s time to think about it a little more in depth.

First, let’s get some more facts.
As Sheila Mahanke-Barnes noted in her comment, the Portland Art Museum website mentions the following.

To ensure an optimal viewing experience, The Woman with a Veil will be displayed in a gallery with no more than 25 people allowed access at any given time. Text panels, audio and video presentations, and public programs will provide insight into Renaissance art, portraiture, and the artist. (It’s unclear which ones are included with the cost of admission, although we can probably assume that the text panels are thrown in for free.)

As far as I can tell, you can enter the museum (general admission) and see the painting and another special exhibition for $20 total. Or you can enter the museum (general admission) AND see this painting without the other exhibit for $17 total. In my previous post, I believe I said that the $17 was on top of the general admission price, but it looks like I was wrong. No matter. It was a deep thought anyway–just a different deep thought! I’m certain that many of you will rethink your comments about this particular case with this knowledge. (i.e. Would you pay $5 more on top of the $12 general admission to see a single painting?)

Now it’s time for me to play devil’s advocate. I understand all of the reasons above for not wanting to pay extra money to see a single painting, but I’m siding with the museum on this. Here are some of my reasons, which hold true whether it's $5 extra or $17 as I had originally thought. Keep in mind that I usually avoid blockbuster exhibits at all costs. I prefer the quiet of a museum's permanent collection galleries or smaller, focused exhibits. Still, I'd fork over the dough for this one.

Who said art is supposed to be for the masses? If art were for the masses, wouldn’t we do a better job of keeping it in our K-12 curriculum and making sure it was funded? If, as an artist, you priced your artwork for the masses, you might just stay in the poorhouse.

It could increase Museum membership. The Portland Art Museum director has said that this is a gamble to try to increase museum membership. Museums do this all of the time by adding on entry fees for special exhibitions. This just happens to be for a single painting. It’s a known fact that special exhibits, with their increased fees, can expand the membership ranks since members receive free entrance into all exhibits.

Museums are broke! The Portland Art Museum has faced budget cuts and staff layoffs in the past year. As a former museum curator and educator, I know that museum staff give 110% to their jobs for not a lot of pay. We need to be sure that our cultural heritage is looked after by qualified people.  I’m not sure how many museums in the UK are publicly funded (many of you mentioned the free UK museums in your comments), but very few in the US are publicly funded and none that I know of are 100% funded by government. They might get a smidgeon of funds from city, state, county, or federal entities, but even the Smithsonian isn’t completely funded by the feds. And Congress seems to be always trying to take some funding away! That’s why Smithsonian museums are in states of disrepair. With giving way down, someone has to pay for the expenses of interpreting, storing and showing art–not to mention electricity, groundskeeping, cleaning, and so forth. It is darned expensive to keep the doors of a museum open!

Someone noted in the comments that they might pay the $17 if it were a fundraiser for a charity. Well, isn't an art museum a solid charitable cause?

Museums are cheap entertainment! You can spend all day in a museum for a single price. You can probably even leave and return the same day for that same price. I don't think people value this experience enough. And perhaps we never will. For many people, it will never be worth the price to view art, just as for others, it wouldn't be worth the cost to attend a monster truck rally.

The Portland Art Museum said it will spend $200,000 to exhibit the work. This doesn’t include the undisclosed loan fee it will pay the Italian government. I doubt seriously that the Museum will make any money from this venture. Special exhibits are rarely cash cows for museums.

The Portland Art Museum is offering free viewings, although it’s unclear as to how many times La Velata will be able to be seen without charge. The gallery may be packed during times, but it will be free.

As Alison Ellett wrote, “Cheaper than a trip to Florence.” (Loved this!) The press release notes, “The Italian government must approve every loan, for example, and private institutions usually are excluded from consideration. Casellati says La Velata has been on loan out of Italy once, possibly twice.” So you either see it this go around or pack your bags and head to Italy. (It will also travel to the Nevada Art Museum and Milwaukee Art Museum.)

Would you pay $20 to see a baseball game or attend a concert? Michael Tyler said “It’s less than a movie with popcorn and coke.” Maybe it has to do with the amount of activity. If you value things that take up more time, you might not think it was worth an extra $5 to see a painting for 30 minutes.

Might be a brilliant marketing ploy. People often value things more when they pay more.

I love the fact that only 25 people at a time (at most) will be allowed into the painting’s gallery.

What an opportunity to see what was once considered the most beautiful painting in the world–Raphael’s response to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa! Sounds like a cheap thrill to me.

So, forgive my huge blunder of saying that the $17 was in addition to the general admission to the museum. Now that you know it's just $5 more, does your opinion change?           

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5 comments to Paying extra for viewing a single masterpiece

  • Think it was Tony Robbins that said ” ask the right questions”.
    An excellent example of the amount and perspective of information that can be gathered. I like it, including the unintentional part about the fee.

  • Pippi

    Well, it’s elitist and an outrage to be asked to pay this much to see ONE painting, no matter how beautiful or exceptional.
    Portland’s unemployment stands at 12.5 % one of the highest in the nation. People here are hard pressed to keep their families fed and a roof over thier heads, and the Portland Art Museum behaves this way?
    As far as I’m concerned, this action will not encourage people to support the arts, and it’s certainly not going to encourage memberships.
    On the contrary- it makes me want to boycott the Museum instead!

  • I understand the need for museums to charge….unfortunately for ALL the arts our government is not very supportive, so support has to come from SOMEWHERE! As for myself, I would certainly pay an extra few dollars for a very good look at a masterpiece I might be interested in. The small group is a great advantage over having to dodge around people at blockbuster exhibits. Still……one of the reasons I would like to have my paintings in a museum rather than sell them is so that THE POOR CAN VIEW THEM……and the poor cannot afford such a price as quoted…yet I understand the reason. I often think of Van Gogh who said it was his wish that people could just hang his paintings in the kitchen! A humble desire from a poor artist whose such paintings command many millions of dollars today! Of course in those days Galleries only took 10% commission so things weren’t as overblown as today. The situation being as tenuous as it is for museums today, they should charge as they need to..yet have special days to give the poor the same opportunity it affords the “well off”. The Museum could possibly work with the local Social Services to provide such opportunities. That way the country would benefit by giving ALL it’s citizens the opportunity for inspiration and aspiration to great art.

  • Kathryn: They actually will have Free Days for visitors. Does that help? Of course, they won’t limit it to the same number of people on those days–I’m sure.

  • Thank you, Alyson. Happy to hear that. Yes, it helps, as long as all people can view great Art and be inspired. It would be great if children of a certain understanding age were to have access to special showings as described….they are Arts future . Many artists find their vocation at an early age.