Admission to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is free ― technically. The institution promotes a “suggested” entrance toll of $25, but, after a few lawsuits, it’s become abundantly clear that patrons can in fact pay nothing and still revel in the glory of art history.
That could change for some, though. According to The New York Times, the Met, which is currently embroiled in a multimillion-dollar budget deficit snafu and accompanying staff shakeup, has been in talks with NYC officials about potentially charging an admission fee only for visitors who live outside of New York.
The move would, as the NYT and several other outlets since have pointed out, be controversial. The Met is a public institution, once mandated by a 1893 state law to offer free admission at least five days and two evenings per week. (Since 2013, it adheres to an amendment to its lease with the city that allows it to renegotiate the pay-as-you-wish policy in the future.) It receives annual grants from NYC ― without paying taxes or rent ― now totaling $26 million. That amount, however, covers only approximately 8 percent of the museum’s $332 million annual operating costs.
In the face of a $10 million deficit that could balloon to $40 million in the next year and a half, according to the Wall Street Journal, instituting a two-tiered admission structure could alleviate some financial pressure. The Met’s current blanket “suggested” admission structure generated $39 million in the 2016 fiscal year, amounting to 13 percent of the museum’s overall revenue. The NYT speculates that charging tourists would generate tens of millions of dollars more.
Reports in 2013 noted that six in 10 visitors shirked the full $25 fee, many of whom were locals familiar with the then-”recommended” nature of the fee. (After the aforementioned lawsuits, the Met settled upon slightly clearer language for its fee signage: “suggested.”) “It’s the unwitting out-of-towners who get yoked into chucking up the full price,” The Atlantic wrote, noting that third-party ticket websites ― like Groupon ― didn’t always communicate that fees were not mandatory.
When asked whether or not talks concerning the admissions structure switch were indeed taking place, a representative from the museums sent HuffPost the following statement:
Our admissions policy is one of many components of the Museum’s operating budget, all of which are continuously under review and refinement. The Met and the City are partners, and always in conversation on how The Met can continue to thrive and best serve all of New York City and beyond. While we have started preliminary discussions about our admissions policies, we have not submitted an official, detailed request.
A request for comment from the City of New York has yet to be answered.
Why is the Met in debt? There are several potential contributing factors: namely, financial mismanagement amid previously rising salaries, staff increases and expansion and rebranding plans. Plus, visitors ― particularly young ones ― are indeed paying less at the door, which, according to Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president, matters. A decline of “30 to 40 cents per person is material,” he told the Times.
A two-tiered ticket system is hardly unheard of; pay-as-you-wish is more common. Some major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago allow locals in the city and state of Illinois a discounted entrance fee. Still, the response to the free-for-locals-only suggestion for the Met has been met with some criticism.
“Especially at a time when our President is fueling his supporters’ xenophobia, the last thing we need is to make foreigners (let alone fellow citizens) feel less welcome at our country’s premier repository for world culture by instituting a two-tier admissions structure,” arts writer Lee Rosenbaum wrote on her blog.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, has endorsed the decision, explaining during a news conference on Wednesday that he thought it would be “fair” to impose a fee specifically geared toward “non-city residents.”
“I’m a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” he added.
This piece has been updated to include comments from Mayor Bill de Blasio.