A New York Museum Experience

The discussion about the West Kowloon Cultural District is quite muddled because people have to argue about cultural projects for which there are no previous histories or experiences in Hong Kong.  Consequently, outside experiences are being used to extrapolate.  Sometimes, those outside experiences are misunderstood or misrepresented.  So as a long-time New Yorker, I am going to present some basic facts about the museum experience.  This information is based upon my personal experience as well as the syndicated survey that I am responsible for in the United States.

New York City is being presented as a city whose museums are considered successful.  There are several world-class art museums: the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum.  This is presumably a reasonable target for Hong Kong to aspire to.

Question:  What is the incidence of museum attendance in the United States of America?

According to the MARS survey of 21,054 adults conducted in Spring 2004, 17% of all respondents said that they visited one or more museums in the past 12 months.  Here 'museums' include any kind of museum, whether they are for painting, sculpture, science, human history, anthropology, music, folk art, natural history, geology, technology or industrial design and whether they are domestic or  overseas.

Question:  What is the incidence of museum attendance in New York City?

The people of New York City should be different from the rest of the country, because this is supposedly a more cosmopolitan and better educated population which has easy access to a number of fine museums.

According to the MARS survey of 943 adults living in the New York market (which has an adult population 15,432,000), 23% said they have visited one of more museums in the past 12 months.  This is higher than the 17% for the total adult population in the United States.

Again here, 'museums' refer to any kind of museum.  The MARS study does not ask about individual museums.  The 23% can be taken to be a maximum upper bound for any single museum.  But an individual museum such as the Museum of Modern Art is probably going to be visited by 5% or fewer of the population.

So we can dispel the notion that any of the world-class museums in New York City gets mass attendance from the residents of that city.

Question:  What type of people attend museums in New York City?

The following table shows the incidences within different demographics group from the sample of 943 adults in New York City.

Demographic Group

% Visited Museum in Past 12 months
     Post-graduate study or degree
     College graduate
     Some college
     High school graduate
     Less than high school
Household Annual Income
     $250,000 or more
     $100,000 to $250,000
     $50,000 to $100,000
     $50,000 <
     Executive managerial
     Technical support
     Administrative support

There should be no illusion that museum attendance is a populist activity.  It is elitist and not because of the admission fee.  It is elitist by training (i.e. people who receive higher education are more likely to be exposed to or familiar with art history) and it is elitist by self-selection and self-reinforcement (i.e. attendance at the latest museum exhibits is part of the self-identity of the culturati).  So we can also dispel the notion that New York City museums are "of the people, by the people and for the people." 

Question:  How are museums in New York City financed?

There are different business models, but what is for certain is that the admission fees will only pay for a tiny fraction of operational costs.  The museums receive government aid as well as private funding.  The private funding may come as huge donations of either money or works of art.  Some museums have accumulated huge endowment funds over the years, and they use the investment returns from those funds to cover current operating costs as well as finance new acquisitions.  The Museum of Modern Art also gets money from the condominium of apartment flats on top of its space.

This should dispel the notion that the West Kowloon District Council project be analyzed solely on the basis of stated interest among Hong Kong residents or potential overseas visitors (about something they have not seen) and deducing that the project is not viable because the admission fees will not cover the costs.  If that was the approach, there would not be any museums in New York City.

Question:  Where does private funding come from?

In my translation of Lung Yingtai's Call for the Development of a Civil Movement, I had introduced it with this remark: "You should still be careful because Lung did not describe the political situation in Taipei and I suspect that was a lot more complicated and not quite open democracy."  I may not have been clear about what I meant, but I direct your attention to the two major projects that she described: the restoration of the former US ambassador's residence into a cultural meeting center and the Taipei International Art Village.  How were they financed?  The first came through a 60 million NT dollar private donation while the second came through a 20 million NT dollar private donation.  No taxpayers' money was involved, beyond the 'donation' of two unused buildings owned by the government.  

If Lung Yingtai had proposed spending 80 million NT dollars of government money, those projects may have been shelved.  But she was able to find the 'angels' to fund these projects.

Are there rich people with thick wallets in Hong Kong who are willing to part with some of their money for cultural projects?  You bet.  But nobody is going to step up if all they get is abuse from the lynch mob.  The Guggenheim family would not have poured billions of dollars into their museum if all they get are unconstructive complaints and criticisms.  In the current atmosphere of discussion about WKCD, no one is likely to step up and jump in to the fire.

By the way, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera, City Opera and other performance facilities also have the same models of having to rely on sources of income beyond admission fees.  Many universities also work in the same way.  The student tuition fees will only pay for a tiny fraction of operational costs, and other sources of income (government subsidies, research grants, alumni donations, etc) make them viable.  You can walk around university campuses, and this becomes obvious when you see buildings named after individuals rather than for function only.

Question:  Why would the City of New York subsidize some of the museums?

On the surface, they look like a financial sinkhole, since any tax revenues coming from the museums are negligible.  But museum attendance has a multiplier financial effect.

Here is an example that I am more familiar with.  On the first Sunday of November each year, the New York City Marathon is held.  Several thousands of police officers and emergency medical workers are on duty.  The 35,000 runners pay about US$75 per person to run this race, and there is no way for the city to directly recoup its overtime costs on this basis.  However, the runners come with their families and friends several days before the race, they stay in hotels, they eat in restaurants, they visit museums, they attend Broadway shows, they go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, they take the harbor cruise, they go to the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Garden, they shop all over town and they go home and tell peole how wonderful it was.  The multiplier effect of total spending by tourists coming for the marathon is estimated to be US$75-100 million, which makes it financially worthwhile for the city.

Question:  Why do people come to New York City anyway?

The museums are part of the total New York experience package.  If all New York City has to offer is the Metropolitan Museum, the city would not have such a great appeal.  When someone considers coming to New York City, there is such a wide variety of options that they are bound to find many things that appeal to their tastes and preferences.  Very rare will be the person who says, "I'll go to New York City only for the Metropolitan Museum."  A point of comparison might be Liverpool, which offers the Fourth Grace but not much else that is compelling, and that was a disaster.  

In that context, the West Kowloon Cultural District should not be looked upon as a standalone project and then judged as to whether people will come to Hong Kong solely to visit there, because they won't.  The Hong Kong experience is going to be the total package: convention facilities, Rugby Sevens, horse races, harbor cruises, fine cuisine, bars, shopping opportunities, amusement parks, aquatic sports, museums, concerts, performance arts, proximity to China and Macau, etc.

Question:  Would West Kowloon be better off with a Central Park instead of a cultural district?

Interestingly enough, New York City's Metropolitan Musuem rests inside Central Park.  And if you google "Central Park," the predecessor website to this blog will show up among the top links.

Of course, you can build a park in West Kowloon.  But first of all, all those people who are using their calculators to estimate revenues from WKCD should know that there are no admission fees to enter Central Park.  So this is going to be a huge financial decision to go this route.  No foreign tourists is going to come to Hong Kong (or New York) just to see a park.  But let us assume that the foregone money is not an issue for this discussion.

Then you should know that building a park is no guarantee that it will work, and there is actually a valuable civic lesson from the history of Central Park.

Somewhere in the 1970's, the New York City government experienced a huge financial crisis.  It was effectively bankrupt.  When the city went to the Federal government for aid, President Gerard Ford's response was captured by the famous headline in the New York Daily News: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."  The city had to go through massive budget cuts and personnel layoffs, of which park services was heavily hit because it was deemed to be inessential (compared to the fire, police and emergency medical services, for example).  In those days, it was not pleasant to visit Central Park.  The Great Lawn was a dust bowl; weeds grew everywhere, sometimes taller than people; the park benches were broken and/or covered with graffiti; the street lamp light bulbs were repeatedly vandalised; the garbage was not picked up; the reservoir was filthy and laden with rubbish; the restrooms were disgusting or out of order; criminals lurk in the bushes; the Ramble was a gay S&M happening scene (see the movie Cruising); etc.

Somewhere in the 1900's, everything changed.  If you go to Central Park today, it is pristine and pleasant, and there are signs of many ongoing improvements.  The crime rate in the Central Park police precinct is the lowest in all of New York City.  What happened here?  No, the city did not come up with the money.  It was the citizens who decided to take matters into their own hands.  The coordinating organization was the NGO Central Park Conservancy.  Rich people such as Jackie Kennedy Onassis gave lots of money to the Conservancy; regular citizens signed on as members and gave small donations; corporations also contributed.  Today, 17 million out of the 20 million dollar operating budget of Central Park comes from the Central Park Conservancy.  And it was more than money, because individual citizens volunteered for tasks such as painting the park benches, clearing out weeds or conducting civilian patrols.  It gives me a great sense of pleasure to sit down with you and then tell you that I had re-painted this particular bench. 

The civic lesson is this: the people of New York City did not just sit there to complain and criticize the city government.  That was only too easy because there was so much to complain about.  Instead, they went out and did something on their own .

So what will the people of Hong Kong do?  Will they only complain and criticize?  Will they just sit back and passively react to government proposals one after another?  Do they know anything more than showing up at a government function with a black coffin?  Will they do more than march on the street and think that is the be-and-end-all of civic action?