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Derision for Admission Revision: Parsing the Metropolitan Museum’s New Mandatory Fees

Although I share the dismay over the Metropolitan Museum’s new admissions policy (which, nevertheless, I grudgingly acknowledge may be necessary), I’ve been equally unsettled by the misconceptions and misinformation promulgated by many of the pundits who oppose the new fee.

Before castigating the Met, the combatants need to take time to understand the complexity and difficulties of the financial situation that led to this controversial move. That said, the museum itself bent the truth to bolster its case, as I discovered when I analyzed its figures. And it also changed some of the figures that it initially gave me, to the ones that I have now quoted below. It seems that everyone’s a little confused.

To analyze its defense for imposing mandatory admission fees on out-of-staters, I requested the Met’s figures on the actual per capita contributions in 2004 and 2017 by those subject to the old pay-what-you-wish policy. I expected to see a steep decline, since the Met had stated that the proportion of visitors who paid the full suggested fee (not including members or other special categories) had sharply declined to a mere 17%, compared to 63% in 2004:

Source: Metropolitan Museum

“The average per-person contribution has also fallen to $9 [emphasis added],” according to the Met’s statement. “Fallen to $9 from what?” I wondered.

That’s when I learned that the average per-person contribution hadn’t fallen at all, unless you figure in inflation: Responding to my query, Met spokesperson Kenneth Weine informed me that the per capita amount paid by those subject to pay-what-you-wish in 2004 (when the full adult recommended admission fee was only $12, compared to today’s $25) was $7.39, compared to $9.13 in fiscal 2017 [ended June 30]. That’s an increase of $1.74 in the average contribution from 2004 to 2017, without the benefit of a tricky calculation: Weine said that when adjusted for inflation, the per capita in 2004 was $9.58, slightly higher than the current per capita.

I’m guessing that the Met’s president, Daniel Weiss, was not surprised by the firestorm that erupted over the fee hike. He used the Jan. 4 snowstorm press conference to unleash a blizzard of facts and figures to build his case. But at least one of those “facts”—the purported decrease in per-person contributions (discussed above)—was as slippery as the sidewalks.

Dan Weiss announcing future exhibitions at an earlier Met press event
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

More prophetic than he knew, Weiss had said this at a September museums panel discussion:

The question of what protest means is an important one for us to consider. It’s a form of impassioned communication and ultimately can help to elucidate a subject and engage people in ways that might be helpful. But in the age of social media, it goes so quickly and gets so heated that it can become dangerous….

There ought to be a forum where those kinds of ideas and that freedom of expression is not only tolerated but appreciated and celebrated. In the age of social media, that ain’t easy, because of how it accelerates [emphasis added].

“Accelerate” it has, with a chorus of condemnation from art critics in both social media and mainstream publications: Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter, Christopher Knight, Philip Kennicott, Jason Farago, Andrew Russeth, Deborah Solomon, Charlotte Burns, Jillian Steinhauer.

Alexandra Schwartz absurdly suggested in the New Yorker that donors of two major recent benefactions to the Met—David Koch‘s $65-million gift for a new entrance plaza and fountains; Florence Irving and her late husband Herbert‘s $80-million gift to establish an unrestricted art acquisitions endowment fund and several endowment funds for the Department of Asian Art—should have been persuaded by the Met to apply their megamillions to the support free admissions, rather than the projects that they and the Met’s fundraisers had deemed to be most suited to them and their interests. Trying to dissuade donors from realizing goals that they (and the museum) value is a great way to alienate supporters.

Felix Salmon and other commentators have proposed an easy fix: Instead of charging a mandatory admission fee, the Met should raid its $2.9-billion endowment ($1.6 billion of which is unrestricted). “If you want to increase your revenues by $10 million a year, why not just take it out of that endowment?” Salmon wrote on his Cause & Effect blog.

Here’s why not: To preserve, not deplete, their endowments, and to provide a relatively stable stream of endowment support despite fluctuations of investment values from year to year, nonprofit art institutions customarily designate a fixed rate (within a small range) of annual endowment spending. The rough goal is to take money from endowment income, not principal. According to the Met’s fiscal 2017 annual report (p. 107), “spending rates applied to the market value of the endowment are limited to a range of 4.5% to 5.75%….The Museum applied a stated spending rate of 5.75% [the high end of its range] in fiscal year 2017 [emphasis added].”

Salmon was justifiably confused by Weiss’ statement, as quoted by Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic, that pay-as-you-wish revenue had “declined by 71% in the amount people pay [emphasis added]” The relevant statistic (as seen on the chart near the top of this post) is that the “percentage of visitors who paid the full suggested amount had fallen by 73% [not 71%] in the last 13 years.” Either Weiss misspoke or he was misquoted. (When contacted by me, the Met’s spokesperson couldn’t say which.)

In case you (and the Met) aren’t already sufficiently confused, let’s go to Jerry Saltz‘s maddeningly muddled commentary in New York Magazine and especially in this interview with Brian Lehrer Tuesday morning on New York Public Radio (WNYC).

Here’s a sample of Jerry’s broadcast gaffes (parsed by me in italics):

—The bottom line here is when you go to the Met now, you’re going to be carded. Everyone [emphasis added] will have to pull out an ID to prove where they’re from and the optics of this are really worth thinking about.

Everyone?!? Only those seeking the fee perk—New Yorkers or students from New Jersey or Connecticut—will need to prove residence. If you’re not seeking that or other existing perks (i.e., reduced fee for seniors), all you need to “pull out” are credit cards or dollar bills.

—Imagine coming with your family of four: There’s 100 bucks right there [emphasis added]. If you have kids, you’re going to pay a lot of money at the gift shop, but that’s fun.

Gift shop at the Met Breuer’s Sottsass show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Gifts shops are “fun” but viewing the art isn’t? If your family of four includes two kids under 13 (who are entitled to free admission), that’ll cost you 50 bucks, not 100.

—I’m happy with the Met and other museums having to pay their way and I understand it’s very difficult, but that [the change in admission policy] seems the wrong first move [emphasis added].

FIRST MOVE?!? There have been staff layoffs and buyouts and a reduction in the budget for special exhibitions, which have been downsized in number and scope. Those are pretty significant “moves.”

—Right now the Met has no director. It only has Dan Weiss and another Dan [Brodsky, the board chairman?], who are basically running it before they get a new director. It seems to me that you wait for a new director, perhaps, to make a major policy change like this [emphasis added].

It seems to me that Dan is doing the new director a big favor: Imagine the outcry if as one of your first moves as new director you instituted mandatory admission fees for non-New Yorkers. If the new leader is a fundraising genius and a resourceful turnaround artist, he or she can reduce or do away with mandatory admission fees and be hailed as a hero, instead of reviled as a villain. Meanwhile, Dan is taking the heat.

I dislike the new admission policy as much as anyone. But given the financial exigencies (see the links in my second paragraph), it’s probably a necessary evil. That said, I’d like to see free admission extended to all those who are under 19 (not only to those under 12). If they are to thrive, art museums need to do everything they can to cultivate young people as their future audiences and benefactors.

Finally, a word from my museum-loving New Jersey neighbors, who live within eyesight of Manhattan: “Are we chopped liver?” They are livid about being lumped with distant tourists under the new policy.

View of the Met’s Cloisters from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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