I had the good fortune to spend a weekend in my hometown of New York City recently and visited several museums while there. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I trekked to the Upper East Side to see an exhibit of portraits by Egon Schiele, an Austrian Secessionist artist who died too young and whose work I have admired for a long time. Housed in an extraordinarily beautiful mansion once owned by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the Neue Galerie was founded by Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsky for the purpose of exhibiting early 20th century Austrian and German art and design, much of it collected by Mr. Lauder, who serves as the president of the museum.
We waited on a line outside as entry was limited to a small number of visitors at a time. It was windy and damp, but given the unique exhibit decided to stick it out. There were two guards in the very small foyer. One guard rudely told two women to step outside to make room, while another informed me that I could not bring my water bottle into the building. No, I could not check it, no I could not pick it up on the way out; it had to be discarded. My companion and I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. Water bottle discarded and umbrellas sheathed in plastic baggies, we were escorted to the cloakroom to check our coats and umbrellas. Standing in front of the adjacent admissions desk, we were mildly surprised to learn that the cost of admission is $20 per person. I thought this a bit steep for such a small museum and for the first time that day – but not the last – began to consider the ways in which each phase of our experience thus far created a barrier to entry; we might have stepped away at any time. A $20 admission charge is admittedly not all that uncommon. The nearby Frick Collection, for example, also has a $20 entry but is a larger collection and opens its doors on a “pay what you can” basis every Sunday, removing that particular barrier to entry. The Neue Galerie, in contrast, is open for free only for two hours once a month on a Friday evening. An individual membership at Neue Galerie is $275! (At the Frick only $75.)
Having paid our fees, we were taken by elevator to the third floor gallery where the Schiele portraits are displayed. It is an extraordinary collection of work, which I will remember for years. A good memory is imperative, as there was a guard in each small room (sometimes two) to remind visitors not to take pictures. (Yes, one could purchase an exhibit catalog, but that does not do justice to a wall covered by two dozen or more pencil drawings, each speaking to the one beside it.) I understand fully the prohibition against photography, but its enforcement could have been more…polite. I was starting to feel like I was actually in Vienna, where I had had similar experiences. Yes, I would be allowed to view the art, but I was not made to feel welcome to do so. I was not alone in the feeling. We walked a few blocks downtown to the Met where the docent, upon seeing our Neue Galerie buttons asked if we had enjoyed the Schiele exhibit. “Well…we had a kind of outputting experience…” I started to reply when the docent said, “It’s so funny you felt that way. I tried to go the other day, but they wouldn’t let me even check my water bottle, so I just decided to leave.”
The Neue Galerie’s permanent collection is on its second floor. Work by Klimt, Kokoschka and others fill what was once the grand salon of the mansion. It was here that I was saddened to learn of yet another barrier to entry: nobody under 12 admitted. I thought of this the following Monday as I visited the Museum of Modern Art, where there were groups of school children (eight-ten years old, mostly kids of color) sitting in front of Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Di Chirico’s Serenity of the Scholar, and other works, talking with young docents about the art, engaging with it, and really seeing it; some were sketching, some were shouting out answers to a young guide’s questions. I wish that they could see Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer up close. I wish they could see the detail of her eyes juxtaposed with the flat pattern of Klimt’s rich background. But these ten-year-olds can’t see this sublime work: there are too many barriers to entry.
(Images of Egon Schiele Self Portrait in Orange Jacket, 1913 and Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907 are in the public domain. These small images on the screen are a mere sign; they are no substitute for the real thing)