The Great Line at the Guggenheim

Billy Wharton May 26, 2010

“Art,” Thomas Merton once said, “enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Merton’s quote captures the pleasantly transformative qualities of creating and viewing artwork. Yet, for many New Yorkers, the thought of experiencing art through a trip to the museum is simply out of reach. The cost is just too prohibitive so most reconcile themselves to treating the television as the primary means of cultural stimulation.

What a pleasant surprise then to discover the “great line” at the Guggenheim Museum this afternoon. Hundreds of people lined up outside of the museum to take advantage of the “pay what you want” admission. Normal rates for entry are $18 per person. The special voluntary donation period is only open on Saturdays from 5:45 pm until 7:45 pm.

As I approached the crowd, I wrestled with an assumption that I might be the only New Yorker on line. Surely only penny-pinching tourists would be interested in such a deal. New Yorkers are far too busy with their everyday lives to take time out to spend an hour waiting on line for a brief glimpse at a museum collection.

Not so, said Ben, a scruffy haired 20 year-old from Brooklyn who was preparing to pay $2 for his admission. “I think this is an awesome idea,” he related excitedly, “people should pay according to their means.” Ok, perhaps the line was filled with crypto-socialists – my kind of crowd, but unfortunately not very representative of all New Yorkers.

Then I met Karen from the Bronx who was on a family outing in Central Park when she saw the line and convinced her party to take a cultural detour. She also thought “pay what you want” was a “good idea” and was prepared to pay $5. She reminded me that the Bronx Zoo used to be donation-only and lamented the fact that there “aren’t many opportunities for people on a budget to go out.”

David and Kristen from Englewood, NJ related a complaint that was common among many people on the line. If the price was “pay what you want” all day they might have spent more time in the museum. The couple, who were willing to pay $2, said they would have liked three hours to examine the exhibition. Many others mentioned 1pm as a better start time for discount admission.

Once the clock hit 5:45, the line lurched forward as hundreds of people spilled into the museum. The workers looked weary after dealing with full-price patrons all day. Another line formed inside to purchase tickets. Signs reading “Suggested Donation, $10” offered a moral squeeze to cough up a bit more, but the list of corporate donors that included multinational corporations and bailed out banks provided a counterpoint. Today the rich would pay and the people would get the art.

Two hours made for speedy whisk through the exhibits. Enough time to ponder the importance of a nice mini-collection of early Picasso. Not nearly enough to comprehend the cultural signification offered by five stacked TV screens each depicting an Eastern European woman vigorously scrubbing a human skeleton.

One thing was clear. The people want art. They are willing to line up and wait to experience it – even for a brief window of two-hours a week. It is reasonable to expect that people should be able to access all forms of culture in the richest society in the history of the world. Then again, with 5% of the population controlling 85% of the wealth we can be sure that power will concede little without a demand. Free the museums for all.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Counterpunch, NYC Indypendent, Common Dreams and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at

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