On weekday afternoons in the world’s premier art museum, there’s a slight chance you’ll stumble across a chicly dressed, eccentric-looking woman, leading a troupe of khaki-clad high school students through the world’s greatest and most diverse collection of art.
For Karin Miller-Lewis, an art teacher at Regis High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (and my former teacher), having the Metropolitan Museum of Art so close to her classroom is an extraordinary opportunity.
“It’s been incredible being able to teach at an institution where we can walk three blocks and haul ourselves up that central staircase,” Miller-Lewis told The Politic. “For a person seeing a work [of art] for the first time, it’s not a reminder of the personal relationship that an artist, through his work, has to you. It’s actually the opening, the introduction to that relationship that only the museum can provide.”
For nearly a third of the Met’s seven million annual visitors, however, this breathtaking experience keeps getting pricier. Just after New Year’s, the Met announced that it was shelving its longstanding “pay-as-you-wish” admissions policy in favor of a new pricing model. The new arrangement retains the suggested fee for New York residents and students from the tristate area, but charges out-of-state visitors a flat fee which varies by demographic ($25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students). For a family of four, admission to the Met could cost at least $74.
While the fee change may seem trivial—only a fraction of the Met’s clientele experienced this switch from suggested to required contributions—the decision immediately ignited a fierce debate that spread across the editorial pages of national newspapers and magazines and into the feeds of various social media platforms. For some, the Met’s decision represented a troubling shift away from the museum’s mission of public access toward commercialism and insularity. For others, the museum’s decision was an entirely defensible response to daunting financial problems.
Though the Met had successfully used the pay-as-you-wish pricing model for nearly half a century, dwindling revenues over the last decade have forced its hand, said Met Chief of Communications Ken Weine in an interview with The Politic.
According to Weine, far fewer visitors are paying the full suggested admissions price than in the past: today, only 17 percent of museum-goers pay the full fee. Compared to peer institutions, explained Weine, this is a small fraction of costs covered by museum admission.
“Here at the Met, we receive roughly 14 percent of our overall revenue from visitors through admissions,” Weine told The Politic. “Compared to our peers we’re at the bottom.”
The loss of revenue from a pay-as-you-wish system, combined with growing costs in other areas, has contributed to a $10 million operating budget deficit for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This is the fifth year in a row that the Met has run a deficit. In early 2017, George R. Goldner, former Chairman of the Met’s Drawing and Prints Department, summed up the sober, portentous rhetoric swirling around the museum. Goldner told The New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin that the Met was a “great institution in decline.”
While few disputed that the Met was in dire financial straits, many challenged its choice of an admissions fee in lieu of some other money-raising arrangement.
In an article immediately following the decision, The New York Times’ chief art critics, Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith, suggested that the Met should have looked for donors to subsidize visitor admission, especially given the size of recent gifts to the museum. For example, David Koch recently gave $65 million to renovate the Met’s Fifth Avenue Plaza, while Florence Irving donated $80 million toward an art acquisition fund.
New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz ‘09 similarly lamented the fact that the size of these recent donations dwarfs the comparably puny $11 million the Met stands to gain per year from the admissions fee.
“Museumgoers have to wonder how much effort the Met has made to steer donors toward the less glamorous but equally, perhaps more, urgent project of admissions,” Schwartz wrote in an article immediately following the decision..
Weine, however, pushed back against the charges that the Met should have looked to donors to subsidize admission before charging visitors.
“Admissions for visitors are greatly subsidized already,” he said. “Every visitor that walks in the door costs the Met about $45…We think the best, healthiest option for a museum is co-investment: government, philanthropy, and visitorship. From this whole change, we’ll go from having 14 percent of our revenue come from visitors to 16 or 17 percent.”
In an interview with The Politic, Indiana University professor Michael Rushton, a specialist in economics, management, and public policy of the arts, defended the Met’s decision. He argued that while the Met could go without charging admission, it would be a foolish choice for them to do so.
“Could some large museums get by without charging admission? Yes,” Rushton said. “They have lots of other sources of wealth, and there are always ways to cut costs…But that’s a different question from whether it’s a good idea.”
Rushton further argued that having free admission meant “giving up money that people were willing to pay to get into the museum. So they either have to cut costs or find revenue elsewhere.” Rushton argued that most tourists visiting the Met from outside New York would be willing to pay the mandatory fee, and the Met’s research seems to support this assertion. According to the Met, of the 31 percent of the museum’s visitors who will be affected by the change, four-fifths are tourists who, according to Weine, pay around $1200 on average when they visit the city and to whom the mandatory fee represents a marginal, affordable increase in cost.
Rushton concluded that the new fee is unlikely to deter visitors who otherwise would have visited the Met.
“The goal of free admission is often stated as ‘this will diversify the audience,’” Rushton explained. “But the evidence for that is really scarce, because for the most part people who visit museums tend to be the highest educated and highest income people…I have not seen one single study that has shown that going from not charging admission to charging admission changes who attends.”
Still, some critics of the museum’s decision argued that the fee would be a prohibitive cost for certain visitors, especially those who come in large groups.
David R. Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, expressed his displeasure at the Met’s decision in an interview with The Politic. He cast it as the latest in a series of blows to the openness and accessibility of New York City cultural institutions.
“There are fewer and fewer cultural resources people can access with limited amounts of money,” Jones said. “If you start to look at the crowds [at New York’s museums], it does start to look like pretty apartheid-like. You have no diversity in terms of attendance.”
For most critics of the museum’s decision, however, the fee itself is not the primary barrier to entry. Rather, museum visitors will now have to provide a form of identification at the door so that the Met’s workers can decide whether to charge them.
“The Met’s policy requires proof of residency in a city that considers itself a sanctuary city, meaning it is more unlikely that particularly illegal and undocumented immigrants will make use of this incredible resource,” Jones explained. He furthered that even for potential visitors who are legal residents, many simply lack official forms of identification and might be deterred from visiting the museum.
In the same piece for The New Yorker, Schwartz ‘09 wrote that the ID requirement “seems contrary to the ethos of the Met as a place of refuge, a sanctuary in a city that also pledges to be one.”
Weine insisted that the Met is doing its best to make sure the ID requirement does not pose a prohibitive barrier for any visitors.
“It is something we are keenly focused on,” he said. “We are ensuring, number one, that New York residents know the policy has not changed for them, and number two, making sure that the way we administer this policy, in perception and reality, projects that we are open to all.”
To that end, the Met will accept a wide range of forms of identification visitors can use to prove residence.
“The list of identifications we will accept was developed in recognition that some New York visitors may not have or want to share a traditional form of identification, such as a driver’s license,” a press release stated. “We will accept a variety of other documents that establish New York residency, including library cards and a current bill with a New York State address. Electronic records accessible on a smartphone, such as a recent bill or bank notice, will also be accepted.”
Weine claimed that other museums who required visitors to show identification have not seen any issues.
“Research tells us that the reason for that is training your frontline staff to be flexible and sensitive, and we are putting over two thousand of our staff and volunteers through extensive training this very month in anticipation of this,” Weine told The Politic. “We are going to be very generous in our administration of it and we are very confident that we can find a way to administer it in a way that embraces the accessibility we want.”
Susie Wilkening, the principal of museum consulting company Wilkening Consulting, underscored the importance of having the right people working at an entrance in an interview with The Politic.
“My hope is they’re hiring for attitude, not aptitude on that. If they hire people with the right attitude, they can train them to do the job, but it’s going to be really important to hire for that attitude of inclusivity,” Wilkening emphasized.
In an interview with The Politic, Ken Kennicott, an art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, expressed skepticism that the Met would be able to achieve the right balance between requiring identification and promoting inclusivity.
“Think of the profound distrust that people who are concerned about their residency or citizenship status have right now with the federal government,” Kennicott said. “I think that I would think twice about putting my name down in any official government registry at a time when there’s a debate in congress about taking punitive measures against so-called sanctuary cities.”
“Though I trust the Met that they’re going to do their best to make a bad situation a little better,” he continued.
The debate over the Met’s admission policy, however, goes much deeper than these pragmatic concerns. For some, the decision to require admission fees fundamentally transforms the Met’s central role in the city and country’s cultural fabric.
To Kennicott, the Met’s open admissions policy is crucial to its identity as the de facto American museum, not merely incidental to it.
“The Met’s first and fundamental priority should be to be free and open to everyone,” he told The Politic. “I would like the Met to think about [free admission] as part of its identity so that when it comes time to make sacrifices, it sacrifices other things before it sacrifices its admissions policy.”
Schwartz ‘09 articulated a similar view in the New Yorker.
“The wonder of the Met is that it is as open to the public as Central Park,” she wrote. “You can walk in without a penny in your pocket and glide up the grand staircase from the lobby to the European wing feeling like the richest person in the world.”
For Schwartz, Kennicott, and others, the Met’s openness to all is a profoundly ethical mission, one made even more important by the divisiveness of the current political climate as well as New York’s increasing inhospitibility to the lower and middle classes. For them, the Met is a beacon, a paragon of American exceptionalism and the radically egalitarian spirit of New York.
The debate over the Met’s admissions policy is a debate about what kind of an institution the Met is; it’s a debate that attempts to parse through the Met’s often conflicting identities, that seeks to distill the Met’s unique blend of popular entertainment, corporation, and scholarship.
At a panel discussion at Harvard in 2002, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met at the time, noted that people “pay huge amounts of money” to attend rock concerts and sporting events and asked rhetorically, “What is it about art that shouldn’t be paid for?”
By this paradigm, visiting the Met is still an incredible bargain, even after the change.
“If you compare the price of a museum visit to the price of other cultural offerings, I think it’s a great deal,” Rushton said. “It is vastly cheaper than live theater, it is vastly cheaper than sports, and you are seeing one of the greatest art collections in the world. From the point of view of a cultural consumer, it is a bargain.”
For others, however, this misses the fundamental point of the Met. “By one paradigm it absolutely is worth $25,” Kennicott conceded. However, he argued for an entirely different view of museums.
“That’s not the only way people experience museums,” he argued. “There are a lot of different ways; we develop our own habits, our own relationships to museums.”
For the out-of-stater who pops into the Met to take a quick look at his favorite Vermeer every time he visits the city, that experience may have now become prohibitively expensive.
For half a century, the Met’s free admission policy has created a profound feeling of collective ownership and belonging. While the debate over the fee change is in part the latest iteration of a longstanding debate over museum financing, there’s a sense in which the debate is really just about the Met as an institution, one sui generis in its influence and its mission. The admissions change illustrates what happens when the romanticized vision of an institution runs up against the harsh realities of business and the delicate balance that conflict requires.
Whether the Met chooses to stick with the new model or not, one thing can be said for certain. On weekday afternoons, you’ll still see Ms. Miller-Lewis energetically guiding her gaggle of students through the Met’s cavernous halls, holding them in awe of the museum’s splendor and the amazing treasures within.