Elitism prevails in American art museums

High admission rates and lack of representation in art museums relegates them to serving the upper echelon

Art museums are a perfect environment for engaging with artistic culture, serving as both a vessel of knowledge and curiosity for young children and an opportunity to admire art. But time and time again, a debate on whom museums are intended for arises.

This recurrent debate, tinged with the underlying constraint of the art market, reinforces an American museum culture that is nestled in elitism, which in turn leaves those designated as intellectually inferior at a loss, unable to adequately fulfill their need to engage with art and expose their children to so-called "high culture."

To attempt to siphon off art and culture in the interests of an elite class is to uphold the weak attitude affinity, or sense of belonging, toward cultural institutions seen among individuals from lower-class backgrounds and, ultimately, allow upper-class Americans to play the lowly role of cultural arbiter.

Museum entrance fees, which can range from nearly free to $29, play a primary role in this divide informed by income as what may be a flippant purchase to some is a significant erosion of disposable income to others. Some museums have attempted to rectify this without addressing their base ticket pricing by offering awkwardly niche discounts and singular free-admission days.  

"Really a museum is still a pretty elite place," said Corine Schleif, a professor at ASU's School of Art who specializes in art history. "And we try to cover up the elitism of museums by having public programs."

When art museums are advertised as spaces for the culturally refined, a notion that "those people who do feel comfortable in those spaces are there because they naturally belong to a certain level of society" is attached to them, Schleif said. She added it ignores the fact that family money may have given them additional opportunities.

What's crucial in any attempt at curbing the furtive elitism in museum culture, which bears traces of nepotism, is the expansion of access to these artistic institutions, Schleif said, primarily through a transparent assessment of admission fees.

"With most museums, you have to pay to get in," said Elli Coupe, a senior majoring in museum studies and an officer in the Undergraduate Art History Association. "And that immediately holds a barrier for low-income families who just can't afford it. Who is allowed in is the middle class just because they have the free time to come in."

What is exhibited in museums also plays a role in levels of attitude affinity, Coupe said. The prevailing white homogeneity of museum collections allows for limited representation of ethnically marginalized communities in artistic exhibitions, fostering a sense of unwelcomeness within these institutions.

"If you're told you shouldn't be in museums just through the artwork that you see, you don't want to go," Coupe said. "And so it continues where it's white men usually making the decisions about what is shown."

Recent data compiled by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums and Ithaka S+R found from surveying various American art institutions that while diversity is emerging at a snail's pace, the world of art museums continues to be dominated by white men.

According to the findings, 84% of curators and 88% of individuals in museum leadership or executive positions were white in 2018, with the number of Black curators equaling out to an abysmal 4%.

"As we hear in the media all the time, are you going to pay for your medicine, or your electricity, or your food?" Schleif said. "You're certainly not going to pay that money to go to a museum twice" or use your disposable income on museum tickets before your basic needs are met.

Another set of practices that solidifies the upper echelon's pseudo-monopoly on art museums are opening receptions and private dinners. Those functions "are not left to chance" and place networkers who are already entrenched in the false meritocracy in the right place at the right time to solidify their standing in the museum world, she said.

Schleif said the fact the price of admissions has raised over such a long stretch of time, especially compared to the percentage of people's incomes, "does make institutions much more elitist."

"What it also means is public funds go into many of our cultural institutions … (and) that the wealthy elite are also profiting from that public money, which is contributed by the taxpayers at the bottom," Schleif said.


Reach the reporter at stellefs@asu.edu and follow @samtellefson on Twitter. 

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