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Admission Revision: Metropolitan Museum Raises Eyebrows with Mandatory Fees for Non-New Yorkers

Were it not for my free-admission press pass, I’d be personally affected and affronted by the Metropolitan Museum’s new admissions policy. I’d feel as if a longtime lover had jilted me. As a Bronx native who grew up roaming the Met, I took full advantage of what used to be free access for all.

As current residents of Fort Lee, NJ, my neighbors and I live closer to the Met’s three facilities (Fifth Avenue, Breuer, the Cloisters) than do most NYC residents of the outer boroughs, who can continue to pay whatever they choose when they enter the Met. As an out-of-stater, I shell out a bridge toll and a hefty parking fee (at the Met’s garage), every time I go there.

Entrance to the Met’s garage

Effective March 1, my art-loving suburban NJ friends will be lumped together with visitors from around the globe—required to cough up a mandatory admission fee of $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, $12 for students (free for children under 12). Gone is what I’ve always regarded as the Met’s enlightened pay-as-you-wish admissions policy. For at least the first year of the new fee structure, students from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will still get to pay whatever amount they choose. (More on that later.)

These unfortunate but possibly necessary changes were announced today by Met President Daniel Weiss (backed by a supporting chorus of NYC government officials) at a hastily called press conference, convened while a major winter storm was in progress. The emailed invitation (with no hint of the topic to be discussed) hit my snoozing inbox today at 5:05 a.m. (not a misprint). Of necessity, I “attended” via a dial-in conference line.

As I’ve previously stated, the planned two-tier system strikes me as xenophobic: 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. Perhaps it was no accident that the press conference was convened on absurdly short notice, on a day when weather conditions made it almost impossible for non-New York residents (let alone senior citizens with glitchy knees) to dogsled into town and lob some snowballs at the NYC-centric speakers.

Met-land Security will soon require not only bag inspection, but also ID documentation for those claiming the privilege of paying as New York State residents. “The Museum is preparing a list of forms of identification that it will accept as proof of New York State residence or tri-state student status, including IDNYC, library cards, and current bills with a New York State mailing address,” according to the Met’s press release.

The line at the gate will likely lengthen as credentials are scrutinized. At busy times, this could resemble the ordeals at airport check-ins.

The Met’s main admissions desk
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The NY Times‘ chief art critics—Holland Cotter and Roberta Smithunloaded a one-two punch against the new fee policy. Similarly unimpressed was Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post.

The admission decision appears to have been driven by two factors—the financially-pressed Met’s need for increased revenue and the desire of NYC’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl to “free up some funding for other parts if New York City,” in Finkelpearl’s words at the press conference.

The goal, to which the Met has apparently acquiesced, is less municipal money for Manhattan behemoths; more for smaller, less established institutions and organizations in the outer boroughs.

Tom Finkelpearl, left, and Daniel Weiss, center, at the American Federation of Arts’ Museums Now panel on Sept. 26, 2017
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As one of 33 members of NYC’s Cultural Institutions Group, all of which are located on city property, the Met gets significant capital and operating support from the city to help defray basic security, maintenance, administration and energy costs. In return, it has a “mandate to provide cultural services accessible to all New Yorkers,” requiring it to get the city’s permission to change its admission-fee policy.

Weiss revealed that the amount by which the city’s $29-million yearly contribution to the Met will be reduced as a result of the new admissions arrangement will be “never more than $3 million.” The actual amount of the reduction is to be “based on the amount of additional revenue generated from admissions.” Sounds like Dan may have struck a decent bargain, unless this is just the beginning of further erosion of municipal funding.

According to Finkelpearl, the laudable pay-as-you-wish concession for tri-state students originated with the Met and its board, which will provide funds to subsidize this for one year. (The museum will seek other philanthropic support to continue this tri-state student perk in subsequent years.) The Met offered a bit of consolation to those who rue the mandatory fees: A single admission ticket will provide repeated access to all of the Met’s three locations over three consecutive days—a chance to overdose on art and buy stuff at three giftshops.

There might not have been such a need to wring more money out of admissions if the proportion of visitors who paid the full suggested fee (not including members or other special categories) hadn’t sharply declined to a mere 17%, compared to 63% in 2004. Reasons for this drop include greater awareness that paying the posted fee was discretionary and the tighter budgets of increasing numbers of younger visitors.

The new policy is expected to increase the portion of the annual budget defrayed by admission fees from 14% to 16-17%. It will add an estimated $5-11 million towards defraying the operating budget of about $305 million—a relatively modest benefit, but every bit helps.

The Met asserts that its 14% contribution of paid admission to overall revenue is “one of the lowest percentages among our New York City peers.” Maybe so, but it’s more than twice the 6% average in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as shown by the light blue segment at the bottom of this graph taken from the the Association of Art Museum Directors’ 2016 survey, Art Museums by the Numbers:

Breakdown of sources of revenue and support at 214 American museums (including those in Mexico & Canada)
Source: AAMD’s Art Museums by the Numbers 2016

That said, AAMD’s 6% figure needs an asterisk: When I parsed its 2014 “By the Numbers” report, I learned that it was based on totaling the revenues of all surveyed museums, including those that didn’t charge any admission, to arrive at what was then a 7% figure for the average contribution of admissions to revenues.

If they had confined their calculation to those actually charging admission, the percent would have been much higher: Of 214 museums surveyed by AAMD in 2016, slightly more than a third offered free admission, while 7% asked for suggested donations, and 59% charged mandatory admission fees. Of the museums that offered free admission, 23% charged for special exhibitions.

The Met is standing firm on not charging extra for special exhibitions, such as the current Michelangelo extravaganza, which was repeatedly praised during this morning’s speeches as an exemplum of excellence.

Now that Weiss has made its peace with Finkelpearl (if not with some art writers) over admission fees, he has a tougher nut to crack—the Department of Cultural Affairs’ mandate to “expand diversity and inclusion in the cultural workforce,” as discussed on p. 160 of its CreateNYC cultural plan:

67% of New York City residents identify as people of color, yet only 38% of employees at cultural organizations are people of color, according to a 2016 survey of DCLA [Department of Cultural Affairs] grantees. Further, while New York City’s cultural organizations’ staffs are not as diverse as our city’s residents—the most junior roles at these groups reflect greater diversity: The survey found that 26% of senior staff identify as people of color, compared to 32% of mid-level staff, and 45% of junior staff.

For that problem, there will be no quick fix.

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