Times are tough all over, as the saying goes, and this is certainly true for many of the nation’s leading museums. Less than a year ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, arguably the country’s premier repository of great art, was looking at a deficit of around $40 million. As a result, the museum had to postpone ambitious expansion plans, curtail temporary exhibitions and cut about 90 people from its staff.
Others wondered if the time had finally come to change the long-standing policy of free admission that goes all the way back to an 1893 statute stipulating that in exchange for public funding, the museum would never charge people to enter.
Since 1970, the Met has massaged that restriction by posting a “suggested” price for admission that now sits at $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. (When it began, the “suggested” fee was $1.) A few years ago, a lawsuit claimed that signage explaining the voluntary character of the admission fee was too small and, in essence, defrauded attendees. Now the signs are clearer and the percentage of visitors paying the full suggested fee has plummeted to 17 percent.
Effective March 1, unless you’re a New York resident you’ll have to pay full admission and yes, they’ll be checking IDs at the door. Because of its arrangement with the city, government officials had to approve any changes to admission policies, and last spring the NYC mayor and the cultural commissioner endorsed the idea of charging out-of-towners full price. Officials estimate the change will bring in between $6 and $11 million more per year.
Daniel Weiss, the museum’s current president and CEO, defended the move, noting that the Met is the only major art museum in the world “that has recourse neither to mandatory admissions or significant government funding.”
Elsewhere in New York, he said, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim already charge $25 for admission to their collections to anyone, local or visitor.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement has caused bitter controversy. Art critics at the New York Times called it a mistake bordering on injustice. Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker said “the wonder of the Met” has always been that it is “as open to the public as Central Park.” Arts blogger Lee Rosenbaum wrote that “This is no time to make foreigners (let alone fellow citizens) feel less welcome at our country’s premier repository for world culture by instituting a discriminatory admissions structure.”
Many people have pointed out that the $65 million recently raised and spent on a fancy patron-inscribed fountain out front could’ve funded free admission for out-of-towners for ten years instead of stroking the egos of wealthy donors.
But admission fees have never been a very big slice of the financial pie for museums. A 2016 study by the Association of Art Museum Directors explained that North American museums get only 6 percent of their revenue from admissions. Art museums in general spend about $55 per visitor while bringing in only $8 from each, including money spent in gift shops and on-site restaurants.
All of this reflects on some fundamental questions about culture and the degree to which great works of art should be accessible to all and accessible for free. It also speaks to the undeniable fact that preserving and displaying art is an expensive undertaking. But it also reminds us that like parks and libraries, public museums are a civic good for both locals and visitors alike and support of which municipal governments should rightly play a part.