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Cezanne may be great, but who can afford him?

The museum's disgracefully high admission fee has closed the door.

"Still Life with Apples 1893-94" is carried by installers to the wall for hanging. It is part of the "Cezanne and Beyond" show.
"Still Life with Apples 1893-94" is carried by installers to the wall for hanging. It is part of the "Cezanne and Beyond" show.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

By Tyler Green

Part of the fun of "Cezanne and Beyond" - the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition demonstrating how the 19th-century master Paul Cezanne directly inspired a century's worth of artists - is that a visitor can see art history happen. The links between the generations of artists and their work are so clear that you don't need an audio guide or wall text to get it. All you have to do is look from picture to picture to picture.

If I were a child, this show might get me hooked on art for life. And if I had children, I'd consider it a perfect way to show my kids how exciting art can be.

Except I wouldn't be able to afford to, and neither will many other families. The museum is charging as much as $88 for a family of four to see the show, effectively pricing out all but the relatively wealthy. This is an enormous, embarrassing mistake, and the museum should be sure not to make it again.

By setting the entrance fees so high, the museum has effectively chosen to segregate itself into two museums. The area of the museum that features "Cezanne and Beyond" is available only to those affluent enough to afford the exhibition charge, while the rest of the museum is more accessible to the lower and middle classes.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a nonprofit housed in city-owned buildings. It gets about $2.4 million a year from the city and has received millions more in capital funding, with more on the way. So its willingness to effectively redline certain residents out of its programming is improper.

This kind of exhibition pricing is not the norm. The most analogous nearby museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a comparable relationship with New York City. The Met asks that visitors pay what they can, with a suggested donation of $20 ($10 for students; children under 12 are admitted free of charge). A visitor can pay $5 and see every exhibition.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's charge is part of an unfortunate trend that has museums seeing themselves as competing with for-profit entertainment businesses such as the local cineplex or professional baseball team. This is wrongheaded. The museum is a nonprofit that, according to its mission statement, exists to share its art, scholarship, and exhibitions with "an increasingly diverse audience as a source of delight, illumination, and lifelong learning."

When the museum effectively blocks so many from its headline programming, it is overtly excluding an "increasingly diverse audience" from its halls. It's OK if a business creates entertainment that is too expensive for some people. But it is not acceptable when a city-supported nonprofit limits access to its best offerings.

If the only way to accomplish an exhibition is to price out most of the audience, the museum should either raise more money from foundations and other sponsors, or it should not do the show. There is no imperative that a museum put on splashy, expensive shows. Nor must an exhibition be expensive to be great.