Admission Fees, Institutional Privilege, and Cultural Fluency

A few weeks ago, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for free. Usually a $25 entrance fee, all I had to do was show my Harvard ID and I was waved right past the admissions counter. Don’t get me wrong, I am tried-and-true bargains hunter and will never turn down the chance to get something for free, but as I walked through the museum exhibits, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was really the most deserving person to receive this discount.

By most standards, I could be considered an “underserved population” in museum settings. I certainly don’t look around in a gallery and see a lot of other young Latinas, either in the artworks themselves or working on the exhibitions. I would never say I feel at home or well-represented in your standard Western art history museum, such as the MFA. In fact, I feel very aware that such a sense of belonging might never happen to me.

But I am Harvard-affiliated, a status that implies a certain amount of privilege on my part. You don’t have to be some kind of nth-degree legacy Son or Daughter of the American Revolution to get into an Ivy League school — you don’t even need to be regular old rich. Although it certainly doesn’t hurt anyone’s odds, I am neither of those things. But a Harvard affiliation, and the ID card that proves it, implies a level of institutional investment.

To even decide to apply to a school like Harvard, to recognize it as a good school and to want to attend, indicates a fluency in whiteness and an understanding of the use-value that these institutions provide to affiliated people of color. It means  you already know what a large, well-funded bastion of American culture can provide to you, whether that place is Harvard, the MFA, or the museum world at large. To varying degrees, everyone who works in the museum field shares this kind of cultural fluency, although some, particularly people of color, speak in several other codes throughout their life, and some have chosen to capitalize on this understanding of whiteness in the service of minority communities.

What I am saying is that by the time I moved to Boston, I knew I wanted to go to the MFA, and that I was going to do so, no matter what the admissions price was. I know that museums are important cultural institutions, no matter how critical a visitor I am. I know that they are built to be available to me, and that while I might not completely belong there, I am still allowed access to that space. I know that art especially is a valuable resource that shapes the world. Not to mention that my cushy Harvard affiliation comes with a stipend that means that I could afford to pay $25 for access to the exhibits, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have enjoyed shelling out.

So when museums like the MFA enter into partnerships with other institutions like Harvard in order to provide free or reduced entrance rates, or other benefits, to this kind of population, they are also implicitly selecting-out the people who don’t share the privilege of this kind of cultural fluency. Based on my understanding of economics, and a pessimistic outlook on the revenue-generating prospects for museum industry, I know there is no way most museums could choose to open their doors to all visitors free of cost. And even if they did, that’s still no guarantee that the rest of the “underserved population” will turn up.

Just like I had to explain to my relatives what a success it was for me to be accepted to Harvard, I have to do a lot of explaining to underserved people of color why traditionally white institutions like museums are not only available to them, but are good uses of their time and money. When a trip to the movie theater costs only $12 and doesn’t make them uncomfortable with their own latinidad, it can be a tough sell.

Lowering admission fees is not a magic bullet that will bring your underserved populations to the museum. We have to do the work of making museum content and spaces more welcoming for all types of people, and that work will not happen overnight. But the first step to retaining people of color in your museum is getting them in the door.

6 responses to “Admission Fees, Institutional Privilege, and Cultural Fluency”

  1. Emma says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

    I wanted to add that I’m fairly sure that the MFA (like some other museums in Massachusetts) still has their reduced admission program for visitors who have Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. Now that the program has been in place for several years, I would be curious to learn if it is really helping to get visitors in the door.

    • Amanda says:

      I hadn’t heard about that program, thanks for sharing the links Emma! I would be interested in seeing how they are publicizing the program as well — and how other large institutions can do the same.

  2. Nina Simon says:

    This is a really important observation, Amanda. Have you been reading Colleen Dilenschneider’s posts on Know Your Own Bone about the misconceptions around affordable access policies? Really interesting, data-driven, business-oriented take on these same topics.

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