Last November this column noted that some members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were suing the institution contending that it defrauds visitors by making them think the admission fee, currently $25, is mandatory.
The Met has a rent-free lease from the city for its building and several acres of Central Park along Fifth Avenue from 79th to 85th streets with the proviso that admission be free five days and two nights of the week. The Met saves $368 million with this arrangement.
Yet, one of the inducements for Met membership ($100 for one) is “free unlimited admission,” as if it were a special privilege.
Originally admission was free to all. But city policy changed about a half century ago to allow voluntary admission fee. The question is, does a sign over the Met’s admission desk that says, “To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount,” sound voluntary?
The plaintiffs cite a survey that asked 360 museum goers if they knew the entrance fee was optional. Only 15 percent said they did. And recent income figures from the Met show that this past spring and summer, out-of-town visitors spent some $401 million, which is pretty princely for “voluntary” admission.
There’s also an unmentioned hidden cost. While current admission of $25 won’t bankrupt most, one visit isn't enough to take in the Met’s more than two million works. As a consequence, it becomes a destination for the well-off.
At the moment, there are two lawsuits working their way through State Supreme Court. One accuses the museum of misleading the public and the other questions if the public must pay anything at all. The Met calls these lawsuits “frivolous.” But given that 85 percent of museum goers think they need to pay $25 to view the Met’s riches, the “frivolous” defense seems a bit lordly.
Free admission to art museums has a long history in the U.S. In 1854, American art collector James Jackson Jarvis penned a manifesto called The Art-Idea in which he urged his countrymen to found free museums: “To stimulate the art-feeling, it is requisite that our public should have free access to museums in which shall be exhibits in chronological series, specimens of the art of all nations and schools, including ours.”
The result, Jarvis said, would be a “perpetual feast” for all to feed on. When he wrote this, Americans were busy with the Civil War and there weren’t any art museums. But by 1888, his Art-Idea took off and half-dozen art museums opened to the public and were free of charge.
Of course, given the rising cost of running museums, which takes in climate control, security and insurance, the days of free admission may be over.
Watch this space for further developments.