Access and Equity | Director's Letter Spring 2018

In 1992 the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums) issued a report titled Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, outlining ways in which museums might operate differently in order to reach broader communities. The report privileged the ways that museums help individuals understand the world around them, and thus the museum’s role in building and strengthening community. It recast excellence not only to include equity but to require it. It also defined equity as a two-way street, reminding museums that if they want audiences to care about them and to continue to participate, museums have to invest in their communities and reflect their varied interests.

Excellence and Equity appeared just as I began my career as a museum professional, and it resonated immediately. A lifelong museumgoer, thanks to a mother who saw looking at art as a natural and necessary act, I might not have articulated the museum’s role in these terms, but they immediately made sense to me. Shaping an idea of the museum as a place of both extraordinary quality and of inclusion, and of the role of the museum professional as one of expertise merged with listening and embracing the life experience of others, may have been a more radical act in the 1990s than I knew.

Among the report’s key ideas are these: Museums must become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences, but first they must reflect society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs; and dynamic, forceful leadership from individuals and institutions both within and outside the museum community is the key to fulfilling museums’ potential for public service. We are now a generation beyond the publication of Excellence and Equity, and yet museums still struggle with access and equity. The debate over the imposition of mandatory admission fees at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is one example of this struggle. But just as I feel that museums privileged to be the recipients of past and present philanthropy (and of tax-exempt status) have strategic choices to make—one of which might be the philosophical commitment to free admission—I also feel that arguments made about “endowing” free admission through the sale of works of art are also wrongheaded. So far as I have been able to determine, admission to the Princeton University Art Museum has always been free—not just to our students, or to members of the Princeton, New Jersey, community, but to all visitors. I am enormously proud of this fact and have sought to make what this stands for—notions of service, engagement, and equity—integral to the wider work of our museum, including its gallery practices, art acquisitions, and educational activities. The historic breadth of our collections seems to me to arise from such academic and philosophical commitments and to provide ways of amplifying them. Among midsize cultural organizations, we are all but uniquely placed to bring the intellectual strengths of a great university to all users, from expert to novice, by casting our eye across the whole of the world’s visual heritage.

But the art world is not unanimous in agreeing with me. Some, like Philippe de Montebello (the former director of the Met), have argued that there is no logical reason why access to great works of art should be free. On the other hand, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith argues that the Met’s mandatory admission policy is “classist, and nativist,” noting that “If libraries started charging entrance fees there would be a great uproar. We don’t have to pay for access to publicly owned books, and we shouldn’t have to pay to see art in museums whose nonprofit status is supported by our taxes.” The discussion is likely to continue, but what is clear is that imposing financial barriers to participation will negatively impact that participation.

I land on the side of Henry Grabar writing for Slate when he observes of a museum like the Met or Princeton, sprawling in their reach and deep in quality, presented in intimate proximity, “the person the museum ought to be trying to get inside is not someone already determined to be there . . . [It’s] the young woman visiting her sister who is not sure if she can afford it, the New Jersey commuter who doesn’t know if he even likes this stuff. . . . being free, all you had to lose was your time.”

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director