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Has the Met Museum Been Cheating on Admission Prices?

One of the must-see destinations for any traveler to New York City is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Skirting the eastern edge of Central Park, the Met epitomizes the encyclopedic museum bringing millennia of art from every corner of the globe under one roof. A class action lawsuit coming before a New York court this month, however, accuses the Met of skirting the law when it comes to collecting admission fees. Before you receive one of those colorful Met buttons (above), you’re asked to pay, if you’re an adult, a “recommended” fee of $25 USD. Just what that “recommended” really means is at the heart of the case, and the heart of what it means to pay admission to not just the Met, but any museum. Regardless of whether the Met been cheating on admissions, are all “admission” fees a form of cheating?

Because of an 1893 New York state law mandating that, in exchange for free rent on Fifth Avenue and annual city grants, the Met must make itself available to the public at a reduced cost, critics of the “recommended” fee feel that the Met’s in violation of the contract that helps it remain one of the world's richest museums. With a $2.58 billion USD investment portfolio and non-profit, tax-exempt status, the Met, critics argue, shouldn’t be recommending any fee to anyone.

The Met responds that nobody needs to pay the full $25 “recommended” fee. They just need to pay something, even a penny, to see the art. However, many visitors, especially foreign tourists, fail to notice the “recommended” small print or, if they do, interpret “recommended” as “mandatory.” Up until 2010, that “recommended” read “suggested.” The Met’s press office counters that the museum made the change believing that “recommended” was somehow “softer” than “suggested.” It’s all semantics, unfortunately, but the end result is confusion or at least the hint of some kind of deception.

“The museum was designed to be open to everyone, without regard to their financial circumstances,” attorney for the plaintiffs (one New Yorker and two Czech tourists) Arnold Weiss argues. “But instead, the museum has been converted into an elite tourist attraction.” For “elite,” read “rich.” Testifying for the angry patrons will be a former Met supervisor and admissions’ cashiers trainer, who claims he coached cashiers to mention to hesitant visitors that “you must realize it is very expensive to run the museum,” among other guilt-inducing phrases. The former (perhaps disgruntled) employee claims that the switch from “suggested” to “recommended” came specifically to sound stronger and more “mandatory” to potential patrons. Further muddying the semantic waters are third-party websites selling Met admissions that fail to mention the “recommended” part of the fee and Met memberships that include “free admission” that people presumably would have even without the membership.

You’ll never hear an admission of guilt from the Met or any other museum about admission price cheating or gouging. Admissions covered only 11% of the Met’s operating expenses in 2012, so it’s not a case of the lights going out if admissions were done away with entirely (assuming, as many admissions critics do, that free admission pays for itself in museum shop and restaurant sales). Even the Met admits that only about 40% of museum visitors pay the full “recommended” admission price. So, why continue this masquerade?

Everyone wants to be an insider. People love to share in line (sotto voce, of course) the “secret” of the “recommended” admission price. Those who fail to find out the truth do so usually because of linguistic and/or social barriers. But, while some want to be on the inside by paying the lower price, others want to be insiders to the Met mystique by paying the higher price. A museum’s only worth what you think it’s worth, which might be the real, or at least proper, spirit with which to view the “recommended” price. People going to New York City know they’ll pay “New York prices,” just as anyone travelling to London, Paris, or Berlin expects the same.

Aside from mystique and insidership, there’s still the problem of charging admission fees to an institution already “paid for” by taxes and subsidies generated by the public. If the plaintiffs win, visitors who paid their admission by credit card over the past few years will get a refund (and maybe more). That settlement might add up to a significant hit to the Met’s finances, but they’ll survive. In a way, the “recommended” controversy represents a lesser form of cheating than the cheating that comes from an institution such as the Met charging admission at all. The Met’s an exceptional place, so they should consider becoming an exception to the rule that access to the arts means meeting some financial standard represented by an admission fee. Perhaps if they lead the way, the “recommended” fee for all museums will be no fee at all.

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