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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Can You Really Just Waltz Into SAM, Say You Have No Money to Pay the Suggested Donation, and Be Let In?

Posted by on Sat, Feb 21, 2009 at 2:48 PM

As Jen Graves has reported, and as Seattle Art Museum is promoting these days in its Great-Depression-invoking ads, admission to the museum is pay-what-you-can. The ad I'm thinking of has Edward Hopper's Chop Suey in it—currently on exhibit at the museum—and the text: "Life was tough back in 1929. Sound familiar?... SAM's admission is suggested, which means you pay what you can."

Yesterday it was as nice out as it is today, and a friend was sitting across the table at lunch, looking as shocked and blank as those girls in Chop Suey. This friend doesn't have a job right now. He has a degree in photography but hasn't felt inspired to take photos in months. He has all the time in the world but no money to do anything with it. I told him he should go down to SAM, which he'd never been to before; that it would be a nice way to spend the afternoon; that admission is pay-what-you-can, so he didn't have to pay anything. He didn't quite buy it, possibly because he's from New York City, where pay-what-you-can often doesn't actually mean that you can, like, pay what you can. Years ago, at the front desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I explained to the lady at the counter that I was a college student and had no money, and could I only pay a couple dollars instead of the suggested donation—which was, say, $15—and she looked at me and said, "The suggested donation is $15." We had a staring contest, and finally I put the suggested donation on a credit card.

In the end, I decided to take an extra-long lunch and go down to SAM with this unemployed friend of mine and test SAM's word: to see what they said when we tried to get in without paying anything. Complicating matters, this friend of mine ran into someone he knew leaving the museum who gave him his ticket, so he didn't need one anymore, which was frustrating because I wanted to watch what they said when he said he was unemployed and whether they would let him in anyway—so I went ahead and pretended that I was unemployed. I stood in the ticket line. The suggested donation—$13 for adults—glowed on a screen above the ticket counter. I got to the counter and told the lady I was unemployed and fished one very raggedy dollar bill out of my pocket (didn't have the heart to not pay anything), and said: "I saw in your ad that people can pay whatever they can. I can only pay $1. Is that okay?"

Before I could finish, she said, "Oh—absolutely, here you go," and handed me a ticket printed with "1.00" in the corner. She was the epitome of friendliness. As we passed a museum guard, who'd heard the interaction, she smiled and gave us directions to Hopper. We looked at Hopper's women, and looked at women looking at Hopper's women.


Then we spent a long time in the modern/contemporary section of the permanent collection, staring at paintings and sculptures made by Warhol, Ruscha, Fritsch, et al.


Then we watched the videos by Northwest artists on the lower level for a while—gazing dazedly at lots of beach footage. As we walked back up the hill, this friend of mine said in a dozen different ways that that hour or two at SAM changed his day, changed his week, changed how he felt about the city. He'd been more miserable than he'd said, and was now happier than he expected to be. He had that look in his eye that photographers sometimes get, that look of mental activity. My prevailing feeling was guilt about getting in to SAM for $1, but I'll be back, SAM, and I'll pay extra next time.


Comments (43) RSS

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sweet mother, this is some investigative reporting i can use
Posted by Kira on February 21, 2009 at 2:53 PM · Report this
also worth mentioning is that SAM membership is totally tax deductible
Posted by hooray refund! on February 21, 2009 at 2:55 PM · Report this
There is little sympathy for "students," because so many of them have parents to rely on.

My parents are refugees and very poor and I'm in grad school; I've learned that my fellow colleagues get so much financial help from their parents and it drives me crazy. I try not to get embittered, but how can you be in grad school and afford a 2-bedroom apt, cable TV, and own a car? It's silly.
Posted by PedestrianMe on February 21, 2009 at 2:58 PM · Report this
This story makes me very, very happy.
Posted by Salty Purl on February 21, 2009 at 3:00 PM · Report this
I agree with Salty Purl...very heartwarming.

But I'm confused...with all of the money in Seattle, there aren't enough corporate endowments to subsidize admission? Here in Indianapolis, admission to our (yes, world class) art museum is free.
Posted by DMC on February 21, 2009 at 3:11 PM · Report this
Indy, Columbus, St. Louis, Cincy, are ALL vastly different cities than Seattle no offense--I've lived in all of them and very thankful I landed in Seattle. Although that museum in Toledo is unbelievable/phenomenal/incredible...the problem is you have to go there to see it. Sure it should be sponsored but the pay what you can thing is great. I'd pay $5-10 but no way $15.

Posted by There's world class and then there's world class on February 21, 2009 at 3:27 PM · Report this
how can you be in grad school and afford a 2-bedroom apt, cable TV, and own a car?

Ummm... what? Look, I'm sorry you grew up poor. So did I. But being pissed at your fellow grad students because they are not poor is a petty, dick move.
Posted by Big Sven on February 21, 2009 at 3:33 PM · Report this
how can you be in grad school and afford a 2-bedroom apt, cable TV, and own a car?

You had a job before grad school and saved money, are getting a decent stipend, or are going into debt.
Posted by josh on February 21, 2009 at 3:38 PM · Report this
oh, and I think your staring contest at the Met was just the case of a very persistent ticket seller or asymmetrical staring skillz.
Posted by josh on February 21, 2009 at 3:41 PM · Report this
FRizzzzzzz - get a clue. The ticket thing is part of a story - have the baron of finance there at the Rag send the 20.00 - something called ethics?

I think they, SAM, will cash the check.
Posted by Dick-kisses covering-my on February 21, 2009 at 4:00 PM · Report this
Now that you've announced it to the world, all the homeless people from the Seattle Library will be coming down to the art museum. Expect to see a dude in rags sleeping in the Salish canoe.
Posted by Rememberance of Things Past on February 21, 2009 at 4:23 PM · Report this
Oh please -- I've gone to the Met a million times and paid 25 cents or a buck to get in each time, and no one said a word or gave me any looks at all. You gave up too easily!
Posted by lizardfriend on February 21, 2009 at 4:34 PM · Report this
When I was studying in London, I went to the British Museum every week and paid nothing. It was great.
Posted by Abby on February 21, 2009 at 4:40 PM · Report this
paying a buck or two at SAM is sooooo 90's.
Posted by i only comment a couple times of year so i don't need name on February 21, 2009 at 4:42 PM · Report this
Yes, and the "waltzing in" part is the most important, and mandatory.
Posted by wallydanger on February 21, 2009 at 4:42 PM · Report this
I don't know what was wrong with the MET employee you encountered, but I just went into the MET a couple weeks ago for $5, so it's most certainly a suggested donation.
Posted by themetsgreat on February 21, 2009 at 4:50 PM · Report this
Why don't more restaurants do this?
Posted by Bill W. on February 21, 2009 at 5:03 PM · Report this
Also, you can get dual membership for a year for $75. I just split it with a co-worker. Or you could find someone off Craigslist. $37.50 gets you unlimited access for a year, plus SAAM access, plus 10%-15% discount to a lot of random places like Arundel Books and various restaurants. That like, what, a pack of cigarettes and a night's hard drinking? Totally worth it.
Posted by rum0r on February 21, 2009 at 5:30 PM · Report this
Jen, you ignorant slut. SAM cannot require payment because of an agreement with the city from years earlier --remember all the taxpayer money that went into the original building and the expansion?

On this visit, you were lucky the attendant was pleasant about honoring the law.

Posted by You can look it up. on February 21, 2009 at 5:48 PM · Report this
@11: So all those homeless people at the library are reading Slog? Actually now that I think about it that explains a lot...
Posted by RainMan on February 21, 2009 at 5:59 PM · Report this
When I was young and broke and lived in NY, I went to the Met frequently and always gave whatever pocket change I had on me. The ticket people never batted an eyelash.
Posted by goey on February 21, 2009 at 6:00 PM · Report this
@19, this post is by Christopher Frizzelle, not Jen Graves.
Posted by Fnarf on February 21, 2009 at 6:03 PM · Report this
First - @13 - Yes. London rocks. The majority of its really, really important museums (V&A, British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History) all have free access to their permanent galleries.

Next - I'm from NYC, and I've gone into the Met on "pay-your-way" many times. The trick is to show a student ID. (Of course, it helps that I actually am a student.) I've also been let in for free more than once. (And yes, there is always post-art-pro-bono guilt.)
Posted by downintacoma on February 21, 2009 at 6:10 PM · Report this

There's no "trick" to the suggested donation. I hope no one is mis-led or dissuaded from attending this amazing cultural institution by suggesting you have to employ some kind of savvy negotiation to obtain entrance. It's free if you please, but of course it's wonderful to make the contribution.
Posted by edie on February 21, 2009 at 7:00 PM · Report this
Mr. Frizzelle, how the hell did you not get tackled for whipping out your cell phone to snap a few pictures?

Cameras are explicitly prohibited inside the galleries, primarily for copyright reasons. That, and flash will cause damage to pigment in many pieces.

(Sorry -- I volunteer at the information desk, and was probably an uptight librarian in a former life.)

Also, if you volunteer at the museum, you get in free whenever you want.
Posted by arts&letters on February 21, 2009 at 9:44 PM · Report this
Its a fucking art museum--they are struggling. Pay something asshole!
Posted by sashaskitten on February 21, 2009 at 10:34 PM · Report this
I just have to say that SAM has some of the best customer service in Seattle, hands down. The ladies at the ticket desk are the sweetest and nicest people! Keep it up SAM. I am definitely glad that I invested in a membership last year.
Posted by Devin on February 22, 2009 at 6:27 AM · Report this
@7 - It's not a "dick move," it's an anonymous blog comment. Neither is "being pissed" a "move."
Posted by PedestrianMe on February 22, 2009 at 8:12 AM · Report this
@8 - What kind of stipend would pay for that???? I have the best stipend there is and none of that can be on the budget! (Though I wish.)
Posted by PedestrianMe on February 22, 2009 at 8:13 AM · Report this
When I have kids, I want a copy of that mouse statue to sit silently in a corner of their room. Just watching and waiting.
Posted by Jessica on February 22, 2009 at 10:27 AM · Report this
@3, You're right, a lot of students get help from their parents. I don't begrudge them that: I wish I had parents that could've helped me through my college days. It's a lot easier to flash a student I.D. than to bring in your financial records (and considerably less humiliating), so I was glad for the student discounts. And appreciative of those who didn't give me a hassle because I MIGHT have had assistance from well-off parents.

To add to the list: The Chicago Art Institute staff was always very friendly and never gave me a rough time when I could only donate $1.

@26, Christopher Frizzelle did say he would donate extra next time. I understand very well that arts related businesses are struggling (I'm a gallery owner), but petulantly demanding money from every visitor won't help in the end. It just adds to the ridiculous assumption that the arts are for the elite, which is a dangerous misconception. The "elite" alone can't/won't fund every arts venture, and isolating ourselves from the general public will just run us into the ground.
Posted by TK on February 22, 2009 at 11:34 AM · Report this
Gagh! Thanks for making the pleasant security staff look bad by posting your freaking pictures on the SLOG! Repay the nice service that you got by taking down the illegally taken pics, please!
Posted by Napping Guard on February 22, 2009 at 11:49 AM · Report this
The mouse statue is my favorite thing at SAM.
Posted by Aislinn on February 22, 2009 at 1:04 PM · Report this
five days ago i walked into the met, skipped the ticket counter and just went straight into the new greek and roman wing. i didn't feel like paying. i didn't get a sweet little red button, but no one stopped me.
Posted by whatican on February 22, 2009 at 9:16 PM · Report this
@29: I live in Capitol Hill. I have a car which is older than most undergrads. No TV, but I have broadband internet and a cellphone (and student loans to pay). I make $2000 / month as a grad student at the UW.
The trade-off is that I rarely go out for dinner, brunch, gigs, skiing, etc. Money is extremely tight, but I've been poor for so long that life is manageable.

...and I have a $30 SAM student membership. One hour there every couple weeks makes me calm again.
My favorite thing is the tacky electric-pink moose painting.
Art is for the people, and we are they.
(or is it "we are them" ? Guess what department I'm not in?)
Posted by Rich in Ideas on February 22, 2009 at 10:51 PM · Report this
@35: wow $2000 per month and you think you are poor?!? I only wish I was so poor!

And, I mean, if you are a grad student working at the UW that means you get tuition remission, right? And your student loans should be in deferment if you are taking classes. But, oh my god, you don't have much money for skiing! Poor dear!

Wah Wah.

Anyway, I was going to say how I used to go to the MET in NYC and I took the "suggested donation" literally a few times and I wasn't arrested or given the smack down or anything. In those days I was so broke that I would walk from 116th down to the 80's and through the park to the museum instead of taking the bus or subway, because I really couldn't justify spending the cash for the luxury of a subway ride.
Posted by kristinbellkittyPovertySucksAss on February 23, 2009 at 2:44 AM · Report this
#12 i totally agree with you
Posted by monkeylovechild on February 23, 2009 at 9:40 AM · Report this
Now you know what a great deal it is when SAM has performances, talks, and other events and only requires attendees to pay museum admission. You can pay what you like, and see awesome programs for cheap! Hurray!
Posted by NG on February 23, 2009 at 9:54 AM · Report this
Thanks for sharing! I'm unemployed and these days am often looking for cheap things to do. I wanted to go to SAM this weekend, but had a hard time justifying $13. I always feel really guilty for not paying the full suggested donation, but it's nice to know they won't yell at me if I try.
Posted by keenan on February 23, 2009 at 10:46 AM · Report this
And now this unemployed kid can go on a date with the boyfriend this weekend! Yay!
Posted by PoorIsMe on February 24, 2009 at 3:07 AM · Report this
Don't understand the issue some people here seem to have with the Met. You go in, you go to the register. You hand them $1 or $5 or whatever you want and say "one, please" and they give you your little metal id tab. No need to stare, show a student id or discuss your economic situation.

The Met used to be completely free, until the late 1970's. It should still be free to anyone who needs to see some art and has no money. But if you only want to pay a penny, just do it. The ticket people really don't care.

Sadly, the Art Institute in Chicago, which was pay-as-you-want (with a suggested contribution of about $12, I think) changed it's policy last year and now requires full payment, except on one or two evenings a week for three hours when it is free to all. Given that only a small percentage of people paid less than the suggested donation before the change, I don't imagine that lots of folks were taking advantage. So all they've done is limit the impoverished to a couple of evening hours a week -- if they can make it then. Very annoying.
Posted by buster on February 24, 2009 at 1:04 PM · Report this
@41, I'm sorry to hear that. I'd really appreciated the previous flexibility of the Art Institute.
Posted by TK on February 24, 2009 at 5:54 PM · Report this
As a former New York museum director, I agree that all museums accepting significant support from public funds should have a suggested admission fee policy. The Met has never said no to an offer of a buck or a quarter.

That said, no one who CAN afford to pay, should simply walk on by. Either buy a membership (always a bargain for those who visit more than three times a year), or pay the single admission charge. You can't go into the movies for free, and the last I checked, Starbucks doesn't have a pay-as-you-wish program. Get real. The costs of maintaining museum collections and facilities goes up and up, the cost of enhanced education programs is not imaginary, and the exhibitions we love to see, are expensive to organize and present. Someone has to pay, and if we really value what museums do for us, we should push for GREATER public support, and not grouse when asked to do what you can as a private visitor.
Posted by David Ross on March 13, 2009 at 5:30 AM · Report this

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