Met Museum Free Students Essays

By Ryan Kailath

February 13, 2018 | 2:29 PM

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When Dan Weiss was in grad school, in the 1980s, he'd pay a dollar to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum has had a "pay what you wish" policy in place since 1970. Later in life, Weiss chose to pay $5, and eventually the full suggested fee. These days, of course, Weiss gets in for free. He's the museum's president and CEO. "I pay with my life," Weiss laughed.

Recently, Weiss announced that the Met will be changing the policy he enjoyed for years. The irony is not lost on him. "I didn't know anything about the Met's admissions policy," Weiss said. "As I learned more about the issues associated with it, I paid more."

Millions of Met visitors are about to learn the same lesson. Starting March 1, the museum will charge a mandatory $25 general admission for visitors who are not residents of New York state or students from neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut.

Public outcrywas immediate. Much of the criticism takes the same tenor: fears that this new policy will change the character of the museum, and the type of person who visits — limiting access to low-income and diverse audience.

The thing is, says Colleen Dilenschneider of IMPACTS Research and Development — it won't.

"The data is clear on this," says Dilenschneider. "Museums that have free admission have similar attendance levels compared to those that charge."

Museums that move to free admission do see a "novelty spike" in attendance in the first year or two, Dilenschneider said. But generally, a decision to visit a museum is rather a function of lifestyle than of finances. In other words, the kinds of people who go to museums are the kinds of people who go to museums.

Dilenschneider pauses to choose her words. "Let's say this," she continued. "Museums need to do a better job letting people know that museums can be engaging and fun to more than highly-educated white people of a certain household income."

Making audiences more diverse sounds warm and fuzzy, Dilenschneider says. In fact, it's imperative for museums' survival.

"What's happening to museums is a thing called the negative substitution of the historic visitor," she explained.

In other words, the kinds of people who go to museums are shrinking, and the kinds who don't are increasing.

"If museums want to survive, they need to do a better job attracting diverse audiences and making them into regular supporters who will pay admission," said Dilenschneider.

She doubts that the Met's new admissions policy will affect who comes to the museum. In fact, it may make the museum more accessible, she says.

Weiss says the admissions change is just one of a half-dozen the museum is making to improve its long-term economic outlook, from its restaurants and retail shops to its membership program and philanthropic activity. The admissions policy is a small, visible piece of that, but financially not a game-changer.

"The policy change we're implementing is a choice," Weiss said. "We did not have to do this. And I think it's very important that people understand that."

Weiss says the museum could make the decision to be free by drawing down its $3 billion endowment. But that doing so would reduce the very greatness the museum is known for. "Being a healthy institution requires the public to contribute to our well-being," he said.

And the museum is working to attract new visitors. In the past decade, the Met's non-white American audience grow from 21 percent to 27 percent. Dilenschneider says this is on par with the progress of other, comparable institutions. But that the change is likely attributable to increasing diversification of the overall population, not necessarily the Met's own outreach.

"The ultimate goal is that the people inside the building reflect the people outside the building," Weiss said. "We're not there yet."

Follow Ryan Kailath at @ryankailath. 

So they set up inconveniences, like the disapproving glance or the Saturday night stay over, that they know bargain hunters will accept in exchange for a discount. The full price — the one that would scare away bargain hunters if it were the only option — is reserved for customers able to pay for convenience.

The Met announced the increase in its recommended price last week, and it made a lot of art lovers decidedly grumpy. How, they ask, can a museum whose mission is to bring art to the people charge so much? One artist called the increase “outrageous and wrong,” telling The New York Times that working-class people were too intimidated by museums to give anything less than the recommended price.

And there’s something to this argument. Sticker prices do matter, even when there are discounts. A lot of poor students don’t consider applying to Harvard (listed tuition and fees: $43,655) even though they can now attend the university free of charge. From the outside it’s also impossible to know whether the Met has done everything it can to hold down administrative expenses. But it seems beyond dispute that running a museum costs more than it used to. Insurance premiums rose sharply after Sept. 11, 2001, and again after the recent hurricanes. The costs of providing health insurance for employees and of heating and cooling the museum’s vast spaces have also jumped.

So before denouncing the Met’s new policy, it’s worth considering what the alternatives are. There is no such thing, after all, as a free museum. No matter what the price on the ticket reads, somebody is paying to buy, preserve, protect and display all those van Goghs and Giacomettis. One option is for taxpayers to pick up the bill, in the form of government subsidies. New York City already covers about 13 percent of the Met’s $180 million in annual operating expenses, and it — or the state or federal government — could theoretically pay the rest as well.

This plan, however, seems about as wise as it is likely to happen. If those of us who visit the Met aren’t willing to pay for its operation, why should people who don’t visit it be asked to pay? Schools, hospitals and roads, all of which could use the money, certainly seem like they should have first claim on the population’s collected earnings.

Another solution would be to find some wealthy benefactors to put up $10 billion or so and make the museum free forever. This too already happens in a more limited way: without the big donations the Met receives, ticket prices would be even higher than they are. But not many people have $10 billion to give away, and it’s hard to argue that Warren Buffett made a bad decision when he chose to concentrate his fortune on treating AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

So that leaves the money from tickets — and, yes, higher prices than in the past — to make sure that the Met remains the Met, an institution that appears on any serious list of the world’s greatest museums. And once ticket prices have to be involved, there is a certain beauty to the Met’s system.

A large majority of visitors have a bachelor’s degree or will get one, according to the museum’s research, making them part of the white-collar economy that has done quite well in recent years. Many of them can afford $20 for an afternoon of entertainment. Many of them, in fact, already pay $20 for a ticket to the Museum of Modern Art, $100 for a Yankee Stadium box seat or $110 for an orchestra seat to “Wicked.” In a way the new price is like a progressive tax.

Those who don’t feel comfortable with it can simply pay the old one, or whatever they would like. There will surely be some well-to-do freeloaders, visitors who pay $1 when they could easily pay $20, but if there were too many of them, the Met’s policy never would have survived this long.

“It’s an imperfect system,” said Judith Chevalier, a Yale economist who studies pricing, “but I’m not exactly sure what a better one is.”

The easiest way to see the virtues of variable prices is sometimes to think about what would happen in their absence. Last week the nearby Neue Galerie said it would charge $50, up from the usual $15, to patrons who wanted to view five Klimt paintings on Wednesdays, a day the gallery is usually closed. A few days later, it abandoned the plan in the face of a public outcry.

So think about what happens now. People who would have paid the $50 and gone on a Wednesday will instead go on other, more crowded days, causing everyone to have less space to enjoy the Klimts. The museum, meanwhile, will bring in less money. Precisely nobody benefits from the cancellation of the $50 tickets.

That said, there still is one way the Met could improve its new admission policy. It could rededicate itself to ensuring that price is not a barrier to the museum’s treasures, by reaching out to people who are intimidated by the $20 list price. For starters the museum could change the little word on those signs in the Great Hall from “recommended” back to “suggested.”

Just a suggestion.

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