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A visit to the MMA

I wonder how many Parisians visit Louvre more than once in their adult lives, if ever. Or Londoners National Gallery. Or Madrileños Prado. Outside of a small group of art students and fanatical art lovers, I doubt that the majority of local population ever finds time in their busy daily routines to come in and admire the magnificent collections in their top museums.

I’ve lived in or around New York City for nearly two decades (with the obvious notable interruption of three recent years). During the first months of immigration, I visited Metropolitan Museum of Art at least half a dozen times. And yet, the last time I’ve set foot there was probably sometime in 1992.

On Sunday, having left the children in the care of willing grandparents, Natasha and I went for a day in the City. The main aim of the outing was to get together with our cousins who reside in Manhattan and whom we see much too infrequently. But when we were contemplating our specific plans for the day, Natasha had a brilliant idea: Why not spend a couple of hours at the Metropolitan before proceeding to our usual combo of food, drinks and catching up.

I don’t offer any resistance when a trip to an art museum becomes a possibility. And I’ve long felt a tinge of embarrassment that I had visited many of the Old World’s foremost art collections in the last 7-8 years, but neglected the one in my own backyard for so long. It was high time to rectify that.

We started with the respectable Impressionist collection, headlined by several wonderful Monets and Renoirs, but also including works by Van Gogh, Signac, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne. We then proceeded to earlier centuries, to Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian and Goya, Rubens and Ruisdael, van Dyck and Lorraine, Vermeer and Tintoretto, and scores of others. There is only one Canaletto in the collection, but several Guardis, which do just as nicely.

We also visited the Musical Instruments rooms and walked through the Greek Sculpture section and the Middle East art section.

I do not feel knowledgeable enough to lend an opinion on whether the Metropolitan can fully compete with Louvre or Hermitage on the strength of its art collection, but there is little doubt that said collection belongs to the top tier in the Western World. We probably covered less than 5% of what is on display at the museum. We were very much impressed by what we saw, having forgotten how good the Met’s collection was after all those years.

The Metropolitan is one of two museums in New York City that work on “suggested” admission-fee basis, i.e. you can enter it virtually for free even though there is a posted “recommended” adult admission price of $20. And here is what I find weird. In London, many major museums have free admissions and they are truly “free” – you walk in and simply proceed to the exhibits that interest you (except for “special” exhibitions, which carry a separate admission price). Each exit at such museums is adorned with a large donations box, and after a pleasant visit, you can’t help it but feel compelled to put some money in.

The Metropolitan works differently. You have to get a ticket. You come to the ticket desk, tell the person who sits behind it how many of you are there, and hear her respond with the total, “Eighty dollars”. You feel that you are entitled to pay less, and yet are confronted with the embarrassment of having to actually transact with someone who will know that you paid less. I am no psychologist, but I am pretty sure that most people would view themselves as not donating under these circumstances but rather as falling prey to extortion. I suspect that a fair share of people feel sufficiently embarrassed and pressured in this situation to fork over the full suggested amount (to say nothing of people who possess neither enough English skills nor the advance knowledge of the museum to realize what “recommended” admission price means), even though they are completely within their rights to pay next to nothing for entry. Quite possibly, this helps to at least partially cover for all of those visitors who pay no heed to the unspoken shaming and give the person at the ticket desk just a dollar or two. She will still welcome them to the museum and give them the bright lapel pins that perform the function of tickets…

Anyway. After having fed our inner art lovers for a couple of hours, we moved to another part of Manhattan, for a nice repast at an Italian bistro in SoHo. A couple of years ago in London, such trips combining a museum visit and a great meal out were a staple of our weekend routine. It was nice to recapture the feeling a little bit in New York City.

I wonder if I will have the same positive impression of the Hermitage when I finally decide to visit St Petersburg. The last time I visited was in 1990…

1 Comment

  1. neurondoc

    One of my favorite museums. One of my college professors was good friends with a high-up MMA curator, so I’ve been on a couple of “behind the scenes” tours. Those tours were stupendous. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t been back in at least 15 years.

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