Three readers took issue with my worry about museums keeping the wolf from the door by renting their space for parties and events. In fact, I’m pretty ambivalent about this; as Mark has pointed out here, museums are a better first date than almost anywhere and should be open many more evenings. Movies and shows prevent conversation for most of your time together, dinner is vacuous and you’re trapped looking at each other, bars and clubs are too noisy to talk. At a museum, you get a constant flow of interesting things to talk about without having to recite autobiography, it’s quiet, the atmosphere isn’t heavy with premature sexual tension, the lights are on, and there’s a cafe to have coffee and a nosh.
In fact, I wonder that museums haven’t become a favored place for educated young people to meet strangers : you’re assured that anyone there is enough like you to be worth at least some schmoose, it’s safe, and all the stuff in the previous paragraph. As a former museologist, I always watch the visitors as much as the displays and I see surprisingly little of this. I bet the typical single museum visitor in his or her twenties would be more amenable to chatting with a stranger than the strangers seem to fear: try it! If you go alone to a bar and come up empty, you’ve wasted the evening and hurt your liver. If you go alone to a museum and don’t meet anyone, you still meet Vermeer or a real gigantotherium. The principle is analogous to Edith Stokey’s recipe for how to never ever wait in line: carry a book!
The rental events have a lot going for them. They bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise attend, they use the space when it would otherwise be empty, they provide class to the organization meeting in them, and they are nicely decorated, whether with art or dinosaur skeletons. As long as the event isn’t rowdy and risky to the collection, a low risk in most cases, I guess this is a good idea. The singles nights at the California Academy of Sciences, by all reports, are a great success, and one of the best parties of my life was a wedding at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
I’m a little concerned that the core mission of museums will be diluted and displaced: whatever social capital they can create by assisting social intercourse of all sorts, museums are about science, history, and art at a level of engagement more serious and more demanding than restaurant decor. But I think the risk is manageable. What I deplore is that we undersubsidize museums inexcusably (and have too few of them), so they (i) have to resort to sometimes questionable methods of paying the bills (ii) are starving. A museum that’s not full is a classic declining marginal cost enterprise, like a park or a tram: an additional visitor imposes only a tiny bit of wear and tear on the floors, so marginal cost pricing (a super-solid criterion for good policy) implies a zero admission price (like the British and US national museums) and public subsidy. Like a park. A museum that is congested is a signal to build more museum, and get stuff out of the basement and on view.