NEW YORK CITY — On March 1, the Metropolitan Museum of Art instituted an admission fee for the first time since its April 13, 1870 founding. It was a sad day for art, art lovers and those not yet aware of how enjoyable the art experience can be. Numerous artists, including Ai Wei Wei, have vociferously objected to the new policy, but let us examine the reasons for the change, the possible financial success of the new policy, based on other museums’ experience of charging admission, the legality of the new policy and the social change the new policy might affect.
The New York State Legislature amended its April 13, 1870 Act chartering the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with the 1893 Act, Chapter 476, which required that its collections “shall be kept open and accessible to the public free of charge throughout the year.” The Met’s board has apparently defined the public as residents of New York State, and collections as its permanent collections, although the Met’s interpretation may be subject to challenge in the courts.
For years, the Metropolitan Museum and other art institutions have charged fees for special exhibitions and events, thus skirting the requirement that the collections be free and open to the public. New York State residents, under the new policy, are admitted free, and if the Met defines these residents as the public, it is in keeping with the original policy in its charter.
Practically, however, the new policy presents problems. First, one must present proof, for free admission, that one resides in New York State, or is a student in New Jersey or Connecticut. Immigrants of legal, illegal or dreamer status are often justifiably reluctant to show proof of their address, and therefore, if not able to afford the fee, might skip attending this wonderful venue. Students from other nations or states are deprived of viewing work at the world’s second most attended museum, a jewel of our museum world.
We might ask why the change is necessary. The #25 charge ($18 for students and seniors, under 12 free) allows a three-day admission to the Met Fifth Avenue, the Met Breuer and the Cloisters. Controversy ensued over construction of the Met Breuer, as New York’s MOMA, Whitney and New Museum showcase modern art. The Met filled a different niche. An inordinate amount was spent constructing the Met Breuer. Still the Met has a present endowment of 3.7 million dollars. The operating budget hovers at about $221 million.
Its 2016 admissions produced 13 percent of revenue when only 41 percent of visitors were international, from 190 countries. Because of the anticipated annual revenue uptick, New York State Cultural Funds will not contribute as much as previously. Cultural institutions’ economic future under the new tax law, whether that means less in contributions and membership fees, as they are no longer deductible if one files under the new (and higher) minimal tax deduction, or whether that means less in-kind contributions of artwork, should be considered.
New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, which just completed a new building, charges $25 admission, with under 18 free, and pay-as-you-wish Fridays. MOMA (The Museum of Modern Art), charging $20, also has Fridays, 4-8 p.m., free admission, sponsored by the Japanese store, UNIQLO, with reduced price categories, for students, handicapped and artists, among others. The Louvre, in Paris, charges admission but is free for all under 26, from all nations, all primary and secondary students, teachers and people on income support and the disabled and their attendants. The first Sunday of each month and every Friday after six o’clock is free.
The United Kingdom instituted free admissions at art museums in the 1980s, whereupon attendance rose a whopping 70 percent. Clear plastic donation boxes in the lobbies were always full. Partially due to Cultural Councils’ larger donations toward operating costs, and otherwise due to donations, the bottom line rose far above what it previously had been during the admissions-charge years.
When the Victoria & Albert Museum diverged from the policy, instituting a five-pound fee in 1997, it saw visitor numbers halved. Later that year, the Labour government brought free admission back to all London museums to diversity the range of visitors, increasing admissions. It seemed those who could not afford to attend did not.
So, is it a good idea to charge admission to non-New Yorkers? Will it be challenged in court? Will it produce additional revenue? Time will tell.