Why the end of the Met buttons made me so sad

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The other night I read a sweetly nostalgic New York Times article about the Metropolitan Museum of Art no longer issuing its iconic metal buttons at admission. I was surprised to discover how intensely sad it made me to think of going to the Met and later peeling a sticker off my sweater, rather than carefully removing one of those lovely candy-bright slick metal badges from a buttonhole.

I posted a link to the article on Facebook and saw quite a few of my friends felt similarly, a combination of disarmingly nostalgic and sadly wistful. It's not like the museum was closing or deaccessioning art to make way for parking - quite the opposite, they're actually adding Mondays to their opening hours. The budgetary concerns in the article were clearly described, and as the Met's director acknowledged, the metal buttons had become "antiquated luxuries."

And yet, that hit at the very heart of why this decision made me so sad.

Institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick, all of Lincoln Center, and the majority of my favorite American cultural venues, have only ever existed because of massively wealthy individuals and their philanthropy. People like me don't typically get to own Monets and van Goghs, but someone does. And they were generous enough to donate and install these amazing works of art in gorgeous Neoclassical buildings that serve as the secular hallowed ground of artists and art-lovers worldwide. For a suggested donation, I was given a magical token that gained access into worlds of imagination, history, and beauty. My feet might ache as I walked across miles of marble flooring, but inevitably I'd gaze up at the egg and dart molding circling the domes of the Great Hall or find myself blown away by yet another detail of my favorite painting in the world, and I would find my eyes warm with tears at the joy that this incredible place exists and I'm allowed in it.

The Met is full of art and artifacts that would have been lost, damaged, sold, or otherwise rendered worthless had they remained in private custody. It is the embodiment of recognizing the worth of beauty and the value of something seemingly frivolous solely because it brings happiness or intrigue to the viewer. I have no illusions about these silly little paintings and objects that were once stacked in the corner of an artist's studio and are now preserved in anachronistic gilded frames behind motion sensor alarms; the only value they have ever held is the emotional currency we ascribe to them. And yet, this marvelous place exists and continues to perpetuate the belief that beauty is worth something and we should make the great works produced by mankind accessible to as many people as possible.

For the Met to take austerity measures and to make a decision against antiquated luxury, even if it's clearly the right decision and an ecologically sound one too, filled me with sadness. The Met celebrates antiquated luxury and the freedom that comes with escaping to a sunny Tahitian afternoon through Gauguin's brushstrokes, regardless of what the weather or political climate are like outside. It is the essence of leaving one's everyday troubles and concerns, even for an hour, in favor of filling the heart with color and light.

I know it's a three-cent piece of metal. It never meant much to me before, even though I kept just about every one. But I doubt I will ever feel the same gratitude and warmth to have a wayward sticker stuck to my shoe as that familiar camaraderie and connectedness when a red-faced tourist dropped a loudly-clanking button on those marble floors, or I saw a photo of myself at dinner, still wearing my metal Met button.

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This page contains a single entry by Vicki published on June 30, 2013 10:44 PM.

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