The Met and its “recommended” admission fees

As recently featured in the Huffington Post and NPR’s The Two-Way blog, there has surfaced a controversy and lawsuit about the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s $25 admission fee. The controversy stems from the fact the $25 is actually a recommended donation for admission pursuant to an amendment to an agreement between the city and the museum’s owners in 1970. Those who wish to get into the Met still have to pay something, even if only a penny. (The original 1893 agreement, prior to the 1970 amendment, required free admission for at least five days and two evenings per week in exchange for grants and free use of the land.)

ArtInfo has an interesting article from 2011 which, interestingly, was written right before the increase from $20 to $25 in the suggested/recommended admission fee. From that article comes this dandy quote:

According to the New York Times, Met director Thomas P. Campbell is justifying this cruel cost bump with the argument that post economic-downturn, visitors have been proffering less and less. Apparently, while in boomtimes the per capita contribution goes up annually, in the past fiscal year it’s plummeted a whole 16 cents. So, yes, people are paying less, and your plan is to raise the price — brilliant idea!

I support pay-as-you-can admission fees on principle. They help bring visual and performing arts to an audience which might otherwise just stay home watching cookie-cutter broadcast TV. And society needs more art and more people exposed to art. On the flip side of it, trying to pass off the $25 recommended donation for admission as a requirement is a bit underhanded and could even be seen as thinly-disguised greed, certainly not something that our museums should be doing whether in New York City or elsewhere. I think that is the crux of the lawsuit, and while in general it’s bad form to sue a non-profit, others have opined that the Met isn’t hurting for money.

As examples, see the Met’s online ticketing page and the Met’s guest passes page. There is no “recommended” about the $25 (or discounted amounts of $17 for seniors or $12 for students) at either page. The only way to get a guest pass for less than $25, is to get ten or more for $20 each (total payment: $200+). This would appear to go against the spirit of the 1970 amended agreement between the museum and the city (though the online ticketing page does have a disclaimer if you look in the often-ignored legalese at the bottom).

At the same time, I recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect free admission to the Met. This is not at all what I am suggesting. Locally, we have free admission at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for one night per week underwritten by a corporate sponsor. I appreciate this, and I recognize that it requires quite a bit of money to do something like it.

Looking at the big picture, it’s possible that the Met just doesn’t like the agreement they are stuck in any more. If that’s truly the case, then it should be renegotiated. But, meanwhile, the agreement with the city should be honored both in letter and in spirit, and the fact you can get in for less than the recommended donation should be made clearer—not buried in legalese.