This morning, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the greatest encyclopedic museum of art in the world — willfully threw a piece of its greatness away. Its longtime admissions policy of paying what you wish as long as you pay something, a singularly democratic, Jeffersonian, and flexible economic and ethical comfort and gratification, will now be monetized. Starting March 1, the Met will card visitors, asking where they live, in order to start charging the full admission of $25 to out-of-state visitors. The administration’s hope is to raise the proportion of income it takes in at the gate by a couple percent.
The new rules declare (and probably had to, owing to the museum’s lease with the city) that New York State residents may still pay what they wish. So can students with IDs from Connecticut and New Jersey, up through graduate school. Children under 12 will still be admitted free. Seniors not living in New York State will now be required to pay $17. Everyone else will have to pay $25. I already envision the lengthening lines as people dig around and present various forms of identification — real, made-up, borrowed, or tossed over the heads of guards to waiting friends. I see others who didn’t bring any identification that day, who were out for a walk from their hotel or home, having long arguments with gatekeepers. (The Met says they will be admitted and told to bring ID next time.) The policy instantly suggests a thousand loopholes, uncomfortable moments of forcing poorer visitors to dissemble, of trepidation felt by immigrants, undocumented workers, and others who will be forced to produce valid proof of their places of origin or dwelling. On every beautiful face waiting to maybe see something wonderful, I see some kind of pain.
All this to raise around $8 million more a year for an institution whose current annual budget is more than $305 million. The Met is about access to history, imagination, world culture, creativity, visual literacy, inspiration, things that take us away from things that we need to be taken away from, things that heal us, that change lives. That changed mine.
I understand that we live in a country that doesn’t much fund museums. Despite regular wishes by the art world for more Washington involvement, I actually like that the government and the arts are on separate tracks, and I want to keep it that way. Imagine if Republicans told the Met to remove the Balthus because it offends some of their constituents. Imagine if Paul Ryan got control of museum budgets. American museums have always found a way to rise above that bullshit, paving pathways to culture with largesse and the sweat of thousands of artists, curators, registrars, and countless others, most working for almost nothing, just to have lives lived in art.
The Met is a big operation. It doesn’t just present the miraculous cabinet of wonders of its permanent collection. It also stages more than 50 special exhibitions a year, and it doesn’t charge extra to see those. This isn’t the case at most museums. The Brooklyn Museum, the Tate, the American Museum of Natural History — all add fees for special exhibitions. I often balk at having to shell out extra cash to visit a show I’m not sure I really want to see. Just yesterday I spent an hour in a tremendous one-room exhibition at the back of the Met devoted to silver plates made in the Renaissance commemorating a series of Roman emperors. Had I been required to pay an additional $15 to take a chance on this show, I doubt that I would have. Similarly, I saw crowds of people reveling in the wild color of David Hockney, none of whom had to jump through extra hoops to do so. All this makes these special shows even more special. We should love the Met for this, and we do.
We all have imagined, at one time or another, that the pay-what-you-wish policy could eventually erode the museum’s finances, and indeed that “eventually” has now arrived. Remember, after all, that the Met also sponsors excavations and architectural repairs, and hires scholars from around the world, and maintains one of the greatest conservation labs on earth. A lot of the objects you see in other museums have passed through the Met to be researched, recorded, and breathed back into aesthetic life by this unsurpassed team. All that costs a fortune. Anyone who’s spent any time in the museum will also know of the massive education programs, regular free lectures, and the fabulous giant groups of kids arriving daily, being taken through by loving overseers in hopes of changing lives, expanding horizons. I haven’t even mentioned that the Met now has three locations: the Fifth Avenue mother ship, the Met Breuer, and the glorious Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. The new admission fee is good for three days, so it will allow visits to all of them.
I love the Met, but I may be part of the problem here. I go more than 40 times a year. Although I can show a press card that confers free admission, I pay a dollar each time. I’ve never gone there without seeing a few artists or faces I recognize from the art world doing exactly what I am: changing our world a little. My wife and I have had scores of Friday-night dates at the Met. All of us go to museums not just because they’re warehouses, places for local bragging rights and necessary selfies. (Though they are all these things, too.) Museums are ecstasy machines, engines of humanity, wormholes to other dimensions, places where we stand, look at inanimate objects and experience rapture and the world changes. All this is almost free at the Met, which only makes the place that much more miraculous. Seven million people came through last year, a record.
I do not begrudge the Met for trying to do whatever it can to maintain its preeminence. Yet this first-time attempt to raise admission before its new director arrives — intended to raise $6 million to $10 million annually — doesn’t entirely pass the smell test. It has an air of expediency, nervousness, an idea drought, of managers rather than art being in charge. Especially since the museum just spent more than $65 million on the space-eating, flow-disrupting, patron-inscribed fountains in the newly renamed Koch Plaza. This single act of philanthropy (Vegas fountains and all) would have covered almost ten years of this iffy admissions policy. It would have spared the Met an additional self-inflicted wound at a time when it can ill afford it, and the Koch family could instead have had its name on the little admission stickers instead of yet another piece of New York City.
There may lie the real problem. The big cultural institutions’ boards of trustees are in a state of emergency, and they need to change. The Met recently and messily lost its director — after hiring him, seemingly tasking him with doing everything that he did, then kneecapping him in public, rightly or not. That points to dysfunction within the institution and things amiss with trustees. The New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera have just been rocked by serious allegations of longtime sexual harassment by their artistic leaders. Their board members were likely tolerant of, or at least aware of, these festering situations. That’s gross incompetence, both fiscal and moral.
For too long boards like these have been passive, enabling questionable actions and behavior or overseeing economic mismanagement while conferring social cachet and connections on themesleves. This dereliction of responsibilities and neglect is a cancer that will kill institutions built on the backs of generations of creative souls.
Board members donate money; that is as it should be. In America, having no such largesse means having no museums. But board membership can’t only be about writing checks — particularly when those members are neither donating enough nor raising enough elsewhere nor ensuring that those institutions are always best served by their leaders and best serving their public. Trustees can’t keep passing the buck to attendance fees or banking on teams of expensive lawyers to shift blame from them when allegations of misconduct arise.
I love the Met and I always will. I trust it. I must. Yet a wider structural cultural rot has reached the root of too many institutions, and it has to stop here. The ticket prices are the least of it.