Friday, March 30, 2012

The Cult of Greedy at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

David Barnard above loves museums, possibly because he's lived his life in the arts since high school days in Ohio. He has worked as a professional dancer, a costumer, a theatrical dresser, and he also paints and sketches, so accompanying him to any museum show always feels like something of an insider's special tour.

"When I was young," David said, "older people would take me to museums and introduce me to whole new worlds. Now I'm old so it's my turn to do the same thing, and that's what I've been doing. But when I went to the Post-Impressionism exhibit one afternoon last year, the tickets were sold out for the day and I went to the front desk at the DeYoung to make reservations for the next day. That's when they told me I was using the museum too much and there were new rules in place where you could only have a few free tickets to special exhibits."

"I was a charter member of the Fine Arts Museums after the new DeYoung opened, but I gave up my membership and now they call me up to see if I want to rejoin. When I tell them what happened, there's nothing the low level people can say or do to remedy the situation, so they ask me, don't I want to be invited to the special opening parties, and I want to say..." and here David devolved into serious profanity that also included the name of San Francisco society doyenne Dede Wilsey who treats the two Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as her private duchy.

David thought he had figured out a workaround by renewing his membership at the Asian Art Museum at a higher level that would give him reciprocal admission to museums all over the country, including the DeYoung and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get you into any of the touring exhibits at those two museums, and there's an extra tariff. In the case of The Cult of Beauty at the Legion, it's $10 which David paid, but I decided to have a beer outside at the 18th hole of Lincoln municipal golf course instead.

I called the membership office at the DeYoung earlier this week to find out the history of this punitive new ticketing policy for members, and talked to a helpful and charming young woman named Lindsay, who was the polar opposite of the unhelpful and annoying twit pictured above and below at the Legion of Honor members' entrance. Lindsay explained that the new policy of a limited number of tickets for members to certain exhibits started with the semi-for-profit King Tut show in 2009. The policy was reactivated for last year's series of blockbuster exhibits at the DeYoung where a number of museums in Europe were under construction and loaning out amazing collections, such as the two-part Impressionism exhibits, the Picasso show, and the Venetian Masters painting show from Austria.

When I asked Lindsay whether this policy of limiting tickets to certain shows was based on the cost of bringing them here, their popularity, or both, she admitted that she didn't have a clue because it was completely the decision of higher-ups. "You mean it's utterly mysterious and arbitrary?" I asked her, and she replied, "you could say that."

It seems that David Barnard wasn't the only museum member who was thoroughly angered by the sudden change in policy, because none of the current special exhibits at the two museums have ticket restrictions for members. You can see Jean Paul Gaultier corsets at the DeYoung, and British Pre-Raphaelite objets d'art at the Legion as many times as your heart desires if you are a member. However, according to their website, your membership benefits include: "Unlimited free admission for one member and a guest* to the permanent collections and most special exhibitions at the de Young and the Legion of Honor."

"MOST" is the operative word here, and the asterisk is for the following: "Guests and children must be accompanied by a member. Free admission may not apply to all special exhibitions. Special exhibition tickets are available on a limited basis; advance reservations are strongly recommended."

In other words, according to Patrick Vaz, they operate just like a commercial gym, which wants lots of members but counts on most of those people not using the facilities very often. For an arts institution, this behavior is grotesque, and the vague, whenever-we-feel-like-it wording on the membership benefits website page is insulting (click here).

Above all, it's short-sighted, and is going to come back to haunt them when the blockbuster shows are not around. These institutions are alienating one of their greatest and oldest supporters, David Barnard, when they should instead be encouraging people like him in every way. It's also time they realized that many members could care less about going to silly parties. They really are there for the art.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

This policy is definitely not made clear on their website; I joined this year, largely for exhibits like the Venetian Masters and the Cult of Beauty. I assumed that the four tickets I was allowed were per visit, though I will admit this made some of their other rules confusing. All fell into place when I finally called the membership office and, like you, spoke to a nice and helpful young woman who explained that it was four tickets overall: two free ones, and then two for which I could pay half-price. Since I had been going to the Stein exhibit at SFMoMA once or twice a week, sometimes bringing in guests, with no problem, I was kind of taken aback by a rule designed to limit access by art-lovers.

As for the parties and Dede . . . I join in your friend's sentiments. Though I've noticed lots of arts institutions seem to be trying to position themselves as social hotspots, apparently for people who feel they should bask in the glories of art without ever actually having to pay any attention to it.

timwux said...

That sure was a frustrating in made me frustrated with the upper-level decision makers without the foresight to see this will likely hamstring them in the future.