The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Thursday it would start charging mandatory admission fees to out-of-state visitors, a policy change that will provide revenue for the Met and bring the museum’s business model in line with its global peers. It will also deprive New York of one of its most extraordinary, egalitarian traditions, a rare offering that had lingered from the city’s fading commitment to common public life.
The Met, whose 7 million annual visitors make it the second-most popular art museum on Earth after the Louvre, has long wanted to make more money from admissions. The museum says out-of-staters account for more than half of its annual attendance. (New York state residents and students from around the region will continue to pay what they wish to enter the nation’s largest art museum; admission for children under 12 remains free.) It wasn’t just about making ends meet; it was a matter of principle. “What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?” the former Met director Philippe de Montebello asked in 2002.
But the museum has had to maneuver carefully around a pair of 19th-century agreements with the city and state that presumed entrance would be mostly free. Since 1970, the Met has squared the circle by asking visitors to make a donation, even if just a few cents, for admission to its vast collections. The language of that request was the subject of a class-action lawsuit settled in 2016; ultimately the museum conceded the fees were “suggested,” rather than “recommended.” New signs advised visitors: “The amount you pay is up to you.”
Not anymore. The new policy, which will be introduced in March, already has the approval of the city, whose populist mayor, Bill de Blasio, framed the new entrance fee as a blow for the common man. “I’m a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” he said when the idea was raised last year.
In a letter published on Thursday, Met President and CEO Daniel Weiss put a more pragmatic spin on it: The Met needs money. The museum has struggled financially in recent years, running up a $40 million deficit that forced layoffs of 90 employees last year and the downscaling of a planned $600 million new wing. Critics say that under Thomas Campbell, who resigned as director in February of last year, the museum had spent recklessly, seduced by visions of new wings, new art, and new donors.
The “suggested” admission is no longer bringing in what it used to, Weiss writes in his letter. While attendance is up 40 percent since 2004, the percentage of visitors giving what the Met suggests has fallen in that time from 2-in-3 visitors to fewer than 1-in-5—a decline of 73 percent. (Perhaps relatedly, the entrance fee in that time has risen from $15 to $25.) The museum reckons the impending change will bring in between $6 million and $11 million a year, according to the New York Times—a paltry sum in a city where scores of apartments sell for that amount each year, but every little bit counts, I suppose. As Times critic Holland Cotter observes, it’s also a pittance compared to corporate gifts like the $65 million David Koch gave the museum in exchange for a pair of fountains in his name. Finally, Weiss argues, the Met has become “the only major museum in the world that relies exclusively on a pure pay-as-you-wish system” without getting the majority of its money from the government.
Damn right it has. No one would contend that a tour of the Met is not worth $25 or that most international visitors, who account for 37 percent of the museum’s attendance, could not afford it. Museum directors and their allies have often said their institutions possess what economists call a low “elasticity of demand,” meaning that price hikes generally don’t drive visitors away.
This may be true and good for globetrotters, and perhaps the Met will still bring in 7 million visitors next year. But the person the museum ought to be trying to get inside is not someone already determined to be there. It’s precisely those who might be turned off by a $25 ticket who are the Met’s perfect audience: the young woman visiting her sister who is not sure if she can afford it, the New Jersey commuter who doesn’t know if he even likes this stuff. The Met has always offered itself to those people, in part because its astounding array of treasures in such close proximity—not just art, but armor, and the choir screen of a Spanish church, and the façade of an 1825 bank building, and an entire Egyptian temple—can melt any skeptic’s resistance. But also because, being free, all you had to lose was your time.
For those who already loved the place, the optional donation made a visit that much sweeter, since there was no pressure to gorge your eyes until you felt your money was well spent. You could duck in and spend a few minutes among the Polynesian masks, or quickly show a friend the Napoleonic graffiti on the Temple of Dendur, and then slip back into the city. This fostered a sense that the interior of the museum was an extension of Manhattan’s public realm, and that Met fixtures like the five-legged Assyrian lions were part of it, a spectacular but out-of-the-way urban detail like a cornice or a façade carving.
Enduring the stern looks of the ticket-sellers when you handed over your $2 was the price you paid to share this sneaky, radical bargain with a friend from out of town. It’s too bad that the Met will no longer mean the same thing to visitors as it does to New Yorkers, because no city is quicker to make you one of its own than this one. However diminished from days when the subway was a nickel and CUNY was free and the Met didn’t “suggest” anything but the city’s tremendous public assets, New York’s occasional largesse was never something that had to be earned. And while the museum remains all but free for New Yorkers, whatever their vintage, the formality of an ID check nevertheless functions as a little marker to remind that some visitors belong and some do not.
Finally, it’s hard to find a place in New York or any city where you can catch your breath without opening your wallet. That our best and biggest free public space also happened to be stacked with the world’s richest art collection was a miracle, but it also felt like a right.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus