As Jen Graves has reported, and as Seattle Art Museum is promoting these days in its Great-Depression-invoking ads, admission to the museum is pay-what-you-can. The ad I'm thinking of has Edward Hopper's Chop Suey in it—currently on exhibit at the museum—and the text: "Life was tough back in 1929. Sound familiar?... SAM's admission is suggested, which means you pay what you can."
Yesterday it was as nice out as it is today, and a friend was sitting across the table at lunch, looking as shocked and blank as those girls in Chop Suey. This friend doesn't have a job right now. He has a degree in photography but hasn't felt inspired to take photos in months. He has all the time in the world but no money to do anything with it. I told him he should go down to SAM, which he'd never been to before; that it would be a nice way to spend the afternoon; that admission is pay-what-you-can, so he didn't have to pay anything. He didn't quite buy it, possibly because he's from New York City, where pay-what-you-can often doesn't actually mean that you can, like, pay what you can. Years ago, at the front desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I explained to the lady at the counter that I was a college student and had no money, and could I only pay a couple dollars instead of the suggested donation—which was, say, $15—and she looked at me and said, "The suggested donation is $15." We had a staring contest, and finally I put the suggested donation on a credit card.
In the end, I decided to take an extra-long lunch and go down to SAM with this unemployed friend of mine and test SAM's word: to see what they said when we tried to get in without paying anything. Complicating matters, this friend of mine ran into someone he knew leaving the museum who gave him his ticket, so he didn't need one anymore, which was frustrating because I wanted to watch what they said when he said he was unemployed and whether they would let him in anyway—so I went ahead and pretended that I was unemployed. I stood in the ticket line. The suggested donation—$13 for adults—glowed on a screen above the ticket counter. I got to the counter and told the lady I was unemployed and fished one very raggedy dollar bill out of my pocket (didn't have the heart to not pay anything), and said: "I saw in your ad that people can pay whatever they can. I can only pay $1. Is that okay?"
Before I could finish, she said, "Oh—absolutely, here you go," and handed me a ticket printed with "1.00" in the corner. She was the epitome of friendliness. As we passed a museum guard, who'd heard the interaction, she smiled and gave us directions to Hopper. We looked at Hopper's women, and looked at women looking at Hopper's women.
Then we spent a long time in the modern/contemporary section of the permanent collection, staring at paintings and sculptures made by Warhol, Ruscha, Fritsch, et al.
Then we watched the videos by Northwest artists on the lower level for a while—gazing dazedly at lots of beach footage. As we walked back up the hill, this friend of mine said in a dozen different ways that that hour or two at SAM changed his day, changed his week, changed how he felt about the city. He'd been more miserable than he'd said, and was now happier than he expected to be. He had that look in his eye that photographers sometimes get, that look of mental activity. My prevailing feeling was guilt about getting in to SAM for $1, but I'll be back, SAM, and I'll pay extra next time.