Met Settles Suit with New Admissions Fee Phrasing as Leaders Consider Economics

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February 26, 2016; New York Times, “ArtsBeat”

To some, the terms “suggested” and “recommended” are interchangeable. Does the substitution of one for another really carry great meaning? When it comes to the donation that thousands of visitors pay to access the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day, however, this terminology is fraught with controversy.

As most press attention is focused on the unveiling of the Met’s new branding next month, the museum will also quietly change signage to indicate that the $25 admissions charge is “suggested” rather than “recommended.” The change, which is the result of a 2013 New York State Supreme Court ruling, is intended to make the museum more accessible for visitors of “all economic levels.” But is this change splitting hairs, or will it actually make a difference for the museum’s average visitor?

The 1893 law that gave state support to the museum specified that admission to the museum be free five days per week in order to provide the “broadest possible access to the Met.” Since 1971, the Met and the city of New York have had an agreement that the museum can charge a suggested admission fee due to “lean financial times” in order to fund its operations and provide such access. Despite the fact that New York State judge Shirley Werner Kornreich ruled in favor of the museum in 2013 and granted a motion to dismiss the central claims in the cases, officials at the Met have decided to change the wording in order to make the policy appear more straightforward.

Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president, said in an interview, “This allows us all to move forward.” He then justified the suggested admissions policy, however: “Our goal is for people to understand that what we do and what we contribute is enormously expensive. All of the funds from admissions get put into our programs and the collection and the institution. Excellence costs money.”

But does charging an entrance fee really make or break the Met’s budget? Previously in Nonprofit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge covered the dilemma that museum leaders face in deciding to abolish an admission fee. As McCambridge pointed out, the admissions fees at other museums across the United States contribute a negligible amount to the annual operating costs of the museum. When the Baltimore Museum of Art chose to eliminate general admissions in 2006, the resultant loss of $240,000 was two percent of the museum’s budget.

Proponents of charging a fee at the door have argued that reducing or removing the admissions costs have not resulted in increased attendance at American museums. Debbie Laskey reported earlier this year that though the Baltimore Museum of Art did not feel the pinch economically when it removed its entry fee, it did see a reduction in the annual number of visitors. In 1977, the museum had 320,000 visitors and charged each one an entry fee; by 2015, its attendance numbers were 180,000, or a little more than half what they were almost twenty years ago. But, as any statistician would point out, correlation does not indicate causation. Very few would agree that reducing or removing the admissions fee directly results in a decline in attendance numbers. Instead, more nuanced factors are to blame for the reduction in visitors to America’s greatest art museums.

Even the Met is not immune to this decline in visitorship. In 2013, the museum’s yearly attendance dropped from 6.28 million to 6.2 million. As far as costs are concerned, around 15 percent of the museum’s operating expenses were covered by admissions charges in the 2013 season. For the Met, which managed $3 billion in net assets (exclusive of art) last season, the revenue brought in by admissions fees seems paltry in comparison.

Thomas Campbell, the Met’s Chief Executive Officer, received a 10 percent raise to make his total salary and benefits $1.2 million in 2012. Some would argue that with an investment portfolio of $2.58 billion and one of the highest paid Chief Executive Officers in the museum world, the “lean financial times” referenced in the 1971 agreement with the city are no longer a reasonable argument in favor of any kind of recommended admissions policy at all.—Sophie Lewis