Museums have long been seen as spaces for the wealthy and privileged. This report examines the reasons why these establishments are perceived as being for rich people, and discusses the implications of this perception in New York City. This study additionally seeks to understand the relationship between New York’s distribution of income and the art market. Many museums across the world have been built up on the backs of extremely wealthy society members. While many of these institutions do make their own art purchases, these establishments only thrive if they have donors to keep them afloat and loan them supplemental art to display.
Why focus on New York? After World War II, New York surpassed Paris as the world’s epicenter for art creation and dealing. The city that never sleeps became the “capital of modern art” (Miller-Davenport). As the financial market grew in New York City, wealth began to accumulate and naturally art became a sufficient outlet for supplemental income – thus the art market flourished. Wealthy buyers believed it to be a beneficial investment, on par with purchasing precious metals like silver and gold, as the inflation of the dollar continued to fluctuate. So today, not only is there a lot of art purchased by New York’s upper class, there are also galleries and museums opening to house the work.
Why does it matter? The image of museums being spaces for the elite upper class has historical roots. Originally, many of these purchased artworks only lived in the private collections of the most wealthy individuals and institutions. Even though some of this work is now on display for the public to see in museums and galleries, this perception of art being exclusive to those in a higher income class has not changed. This study considers the impact of this perception on the wider public, arguing that it reinforces existing social hierarchies and reinforces the idea that access to culture and knowledge is a privilege reserved for the wealthy.
Excel, Social Explorer & ArcGIS.
New York City Art Galleries – NYC Open Data
2022 USA Median Household Income – Esri
In order to lay some groundwork for this study, first an analysis of the distribution of wealth in New York needed to be done. In order to do this, Esri’s Median Household income in 2022 for the USA was plotted in ArcGIS as a choropleth map. This map indicated some distinct areas of high wealth and the opposite as well. To then see how the array of museums and galleries in New York relate to these hotspots of wealth, NYC Open Data’s dataset of New York City Galleries was plotted as points as a new layer on the map. The juxtaposition of these two datasets made for some interesting findings.
Before looking at a closer analysis of New York, it is beneficial to understand how this city fits into the larger scheme of the world’s art market. As seen in the bar chart (Figure 1), while the art behemoths of Paris, Moscow and Los Angeles reign tall in number of museums as of 2019, New York’s count of 140 museums is quite noteworthy. Note that this count is likely to not be inclusive of all smaller galleries within the city.
In terms of wealth distribution, New York City is notorious for being among the most unequal cities in the United States. While a number of the wealthiest people and institutions in the world call this city home, its population of low-income residents is incredibly large. In 2021, according to the New York state comptroller, 2.7 million people in New York, 13.9% of the state’s population, lived under the line of poverty. While there is a distinction between poverty and low income, this percentage sets a precedent for wealth distribution.
It is well known that there is a significant disparity in income in New York. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median household income in New York City as of 2019 was $71,897. This median does not bring to color the fact that the actual range of household incomes in New York is quite large, with some earning well beyond this median and others bringing in significantly less. There are a variety of factors contributing to this disparity such as resource access, education, and job opportunities. The wage gap is not new, rather it has been a standing issue for a long time between the American wealthy and poor. From the choropleth map of household income (Figure 2), it is very evident that there are clusters of very high income areas, indicated with darker shades of green, within in Manhattan and similarly, low household income areas, indicated with lighter shades of green, seem to be aggregated near one another apart from a few anomalies.
Based on the gradient breakdown of the map, it is clear that a large majority of Manhattan households are within the upper most earning bracket. The city’s income inequality is reflected in its landscape of museums. Needless to say, a vast portion of these art establishments in the city pander to this large majority. The most famous and prestigious museums in New York cater to the upper class of high-earners. Other cultural institutions and galleries that are intended to serve lower-income communities seem to struggle with recognition.
Now analyzing this map with the art museums and galleries of the city overlaid (Figure 3), some patterns can be observed. There are generally fewer museums in these areas of low household income for a number of potential reasons. A primary reason is that museums require significant financial support in order to maintain their collections and host their exhibitions. Without this backing from the community, it could be very difficult for a museum to establish and sustain itself.
Additionally, many museums rely on admission fees as a source of revenue or income. These areas of low income may not produce demand for paid museum admissions because of differing hierarchies of needs and amounts of disposable income.
Another interesting consideration in this matter is that museums can require a large amount of physical space to house their collections. The real estate market in low income areas may not be able to support these sorts of constructions or renovations, which would make it almost impossible for a museum to establish itself. The trend that is obvious in the map is justified by a combination of factors that affect lower income households.
For argument’s sake, in a city with well established public transportation like New York, suppose individuals from lower income areas can travel to these cultural institutions to experience what they have to offer. While renowned establishments like the MET Museum and the MOMA are known for their incredible collections, they also have high admission fees that can be a limiting factor. So while individuals may hypothetically be able to arrive at the museums, they may not actually be able to access them if they don’t have the means. On the contrary, there are smaller galleries and community-based cultural institutions meant to serve these communities with affordable or free admission options.
The relationship between the art market and New York City is complex. While this report may represent an accurate generalization, there are many cultural organizations in the city actively trying to democratize access to culture and knowledge. These museums and galleries aim to serve low-income communities and provide more affordable or free admission options.
What was interesting about this study was that it was based on some preconceived assumptions about the market and this city. The assumptions were accurate but what was more interesting is the realization as to why these patterns are occurring.
Miller-Davenport, S. (2022). The Cultural Center of the World: Art, Finance, and Globalization in Late Twentieth-Century New York. Journal of Urban History, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00961442211064856
DiNapoli, T. (2021). The New York State Comptroller. NYS Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli: DiNapoli: Nearly 14% of New Yorkers Live in Poverty; Surpasses National Average for Eight Straight Years, from
FAR & WIDE. (May 21, 2019). Cities with the highest number of museums worldwide as of May 2019 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved December 17, 2022, from https://www-statista-com.ezproxy.pratt.edu/statistics/1064544/top-cities-museums-worldwide/