A Fourth Dimension: The Price of Admission

11/08/2013 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"You might want to take a closer look," says Alexa Meade in a September TEDTalk on her approach to mixed media artwork. "There's more to this painting than meets the eye." What appears to be an oil painting is actually a photograph of a person whose body Meade has covered in paint. It's an interesting illusion -- one that toys with the ideas of two- versus three-dimensionality and parodies the constraints of traditional canvas work. But if we take an even closer look, as Meade recommends, we see that there is another, subtler, dimension at play that might make us feel squeamish.

Meade says she gave up a stable career (or at least, the promise of one) to pursue her art. Instead of moving to Washington for a government job, she embraced the uncertainty of life as an artist and set up shop in her parents' basement. Behind this decision lies unavoidable class considerations, the most apparent being that there was a basement Meade could move into whenever she chose. Another premise here, evidently, is that Meade was raised in an environment that valued the arts and held them up as an alternative to the desk jobs that awaited her peers.

In D.C. where the federal government owns the museums and keeps them free to the public, what might seem like starry-eyed thinking is a few feet closer to reality. -- Amanda Gutterman

When I lived in Washington, D.C. myself, I volunteered for a program at the National Gallery of Art that mostly served students from public and inner city high schools. I coordinated art projects and led tours of prints by the Dutch masters, paintings by the English Romantics, the sculptures of Degas, and the Modern Wing's vast holding of Calder mobiles, Matisse collages, Rothkos, and Rauschenbergs. Here, the guiding principle is that the arts are for everyone, and masterpieces are common property. In D.C. where the federal government owns the museums and keeps them free to the public, what might seem like starry-eyed thinking is a few feet closer to reality.

And yet, I was taken aback the first time a student asked me how much a work had cost. It was an enormous Mondrian, the kind with black-outlined rectangular boxes filled in with primary colors, the type of modern art that invariably makes some people think, "What's so special? I could do this." What a cynical question for a young kid to ask, I thought, and what a sadly limited way to interact with art. Then I took a closer look. The federal dollars that go toward maintaining museums (though not buying the art, since most works are donated) are dollars diverted away from the services that this student and her family depended on. She had a right to know exactly where those dollars went, I realized. It was my responsibility to have numbers to show her, but more than that, to convey to her the reasons why we value expensive art when basic human services are at stake -- and then to let her choose for herself.

Now I live in New York, where museums are owned privately or by private-public partnerships. Last month in a controversial move, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asserted its legal right to charge visitors for admission. For years it had enforced a $25 entrance fee that it confusingly called a "suggested donation." When I went to the Met as a Columbia undergraduate, I skirted around the fee since the college had bought membership for its students. As an art lover, I am now happy to pay for my visits -- I would hate for the Met to crumble like the beloved New York City Opera -- but I'm not sure everyone is. The museums are free in D.C., but few of the students I met took advantage of them (though after the program they returned regularly). To enforce entrance fees in New York art museums creates a material hurdle for the group that is already least likely to come through those doors.

Of course, there are similar programs in New York to introduce students to the visual and performing arts, as well as discounts for seniors. In principle, however, an official entrance fee explicitly designates the "high" arts, the canonical masterpieces embalmed in the Met, as a kind of property that is still tied to social class. But in this economy -- the dismal refrain of our day -- what else are New York museums to do?

Museums cost money. So do basements, college educations, and photographs of people's bodies covered in paint. (TEDTalks are free but also not: Before we hear Alexa Meade speak, we thank our sponsors at Goldman Sachs.) One of the most insightful aspects of her work is the way she equalizes painting and photography, the living body and the body that is artistically rendered. This, I think, invites a closer look at how Meade arrived where she is today and how others, with talent, might do the same. Also, out of curiosity, how much does one of these photo-paintings cost?

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