The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, colloquially “the Met,” is the largest art
museum in the United States. With 7.06 million visitors in 2016, it was the second most visited
art museum in the world, and the fifth most visited museum of any kind. Its permanent
collection contains over two million works, divided among seventeen curatorial
departments. The main building, on the eastern edge of Central Park along Manhattan’s
Museum Mile, is by area one of the world’s largest art galleries. A much smaller second
location, The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, contains an extensive collection
of art, architecture, and artifacts from Medieval Europe. On March 18, 2016, the museum
opened the Met Breuer museum at Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side; it extends the
museum’s modern and contemporary art program.
Here are two ways to buy admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can approach
one of the lobby’s ticket counters, where an employee will take any amount of money you
wish to pay, or you can purchase a ticket for the full suggested admission price—twenty-five
dollars for an adult, seventeen for seniors, twelve for students—at a vending machine or in
advance online. On a recent visit to the Met, I stood in a long line for a ticket counter. The
lobby hummed with holiday bustle. Tourists wandered here and there, craning their necks.
Locals plowed purposefully ahead. Parents tugged kids swaddled in puffy coats across the
floor. A couple of teen-agers carrying sketchpads sat on a bench and rubbed noses. But
nobody was using the machines. They looked sort of forlorn, waiting to be of help to some
poor naïf who didn’t realize that he was getting conned. “Suggested,” the woman behind me in
line said, reading the text displayed above the ticket counter. In the old days, the text said
“recommended admission,” and was printed in tiny type. Then the Met changed the signage,
after a class-action lawsuit accused the museum of misleading visitors. Now everybody
seems to be in the know.
On Thursday, the Met announced that as of March 1st, the pay-what-you-wish policy, in place
since 1970, will apply only to residents of New York State. Everybody else will have to pay
the full fee. (They’ll be able to use their tickets for three consecutive days, and at the Met
Breuer and the Cloisters, too.) The Met says that the change is an economic necessity.
According to the Times, attendance over the past decade has gone way up, from 4.7 million
visitors a year to seven million, but the proportion of visitors who pay the full suggested price
has fallen from sixty-three per cent to seventeen. Admission fees provide forty-three million
dollars a year, which amounts to fourteen per cent of the museum’s annual operating budget;
the Met anticipates that that amount will now increase to forty-nine million dollars.
This sounds reasonable enough, especially when you consider the Met’s recent financial
woes. Early last year, the Times reported that the museum was running a nearly forty-million-
dollar deficit. Construction on a major new wing for modern and contemporary art, which was
estimated to cost six hundred million dollars and was intended to open in 2020, the year of the
museum’s hundred and fiftieth anniversary, was indefinitely postponed. Then Thomas P.
Campbell, the Met’s director, resigned, amid rumors of mismanagement that included
complaints from museum employees about an “inappropriate relationship” with a staff member.
But by the end of the year things were looking up. The museum projected that its deficit would
be gone by 2020; the endowment increased by nearly three hundred million dollars, in part
thanks to an eighty-million-dollar gift, the largest the museum had received in some time, from
Florence Irving, a trustee, and the estate of Herbert Irving, her late husband.
Could the Met afford to keep admission at its suggested price for everyone if it shifted its
priorities? From an outsider’s vantage point, it certainly seems possible. The Irving gift was
intended to establish various acquisition-endowment funds; what if, instead, it could have
been directed toward an endowment to subsidize admissions? In 2014, construction was
finished on the David H. Koch Plaza, the stretch of Fifth Avenue in front of the museums’ main
entrance, now updated to include trees, café tables, and two sleek, black, charmless
fountains that look like something designed by Apple, all paid for by—surprise!—David Koch.
The cost was sixty-five million dollars, an amount that makes the six-million-dollar anticipated
increase from ticket sales seem puny. It’s presumably easier to raise funds for a specific,
tangible project, one that will allow the donor’s name to be grandly inscribed on walls and
fountains, though, as Holland Cotter noted in the Times, donor-subsidized admissions have
been successful at other institutions in the city. Museumgoers have to wonder how much effort
the Met has made to steer donors toward the less glamorous but equally, perhaps more,
urgent project of admissions. How could providing free tables outside the museum seem a
better use of money than insuring that people can freely access the treasures within?
What can be said, definitively, is that the Met’s change of policy diminishes the cultural life of
New York. Yes, the moma, Whitney, and Guggenheim charge similar, non-negotiable prices
of admission, but those museums are not comparable in size or scope to the Met. They also
are entirely private, whereas the Met’s building is owned by the City of New York and thus
supported by taxpayer dollars. And they don’t have the Met’s special atmosphere—that
spiritual, awesome charge produced by the museum’s grandeur, the range of what is to be
discovered inside it, and, crucially, the mix of people who come to do the discovering. The
wonder of the Met is that it is as open to the public as Central Park. You can walk in without a
penny in your pocket and glide up the grand staircase from the lobby to the European wing
feeling like the richest person in the world. That exquisite, luxurious feeling, of being able to
pop in, anytime, for a three-hour marathon at the Michelangelo exhibit, or to spend half an hour
with a book by the Temple of Dendur, or to pay your respects to a favorite painting or
sculpture for a minute or two, or even, like my mother, to use the bathroom (“The one in the
Egyptian wing! I walk right past my favorite mummy,” she told me last night), is an experience
that can be found nowhere else in the city. It’s a feeling of profound ownership and belonging.
You feel it just walking by the museum, even—maybe especially—when you have no intention
of going in.
That openness is an ethical mission, and an especially important one in a city that feels more
and more closed. Last year, when the prospect of enforced admissions for non-New Yorkers
first came up, Mayor Bill de Blasio was all for it, telling the Times, “I’m a big fan of Russian
oligarchs paying more to get into the Met.” This is absurd. Billionaires won’t suffer from
admissions enforcement. The people affected by the change will be families visiting our
ruthlessly expensive city from out of state or from another country; students who have taken
the bus or train in to fill their heads with art; immigrants without the right papers. (The Met says
that it will ask for documents of residency for those claiming local privileges, though not insist
on them. Apparently the hope is that a firm “Better bring it with you next time” will suffice.) The
new policy will earn the museum more revenue. It will also almost certainly restrict access.
That, too, seems contrary to the ethos of the Met as a place of refuge, a sanctuary in a city that
also pledges to be one.
There’s another lesson in all this. More of us should pay our fair share. Ten years ago, more
than half of visitors were paying the full price, and now it’s less than a quarter. Why have so
many of us decided to be less generous? It can’t just be the clearer signage. I think it has to
do with a sense that the Met is a monolith run on donor money, that our admissions dollars
sink without consequence, like so many pennies in one of David Koch’s fountains. Certainly,
after all the news last year about the Met’s egregious mismanagement of funds, I felt no desire
to give more. But habit is also to blame. It’s become second nature to me to pay five dollars
and go in, without stopping to reconsider. Roberta Smith suggested that the Met come up with
a campaign to encourage visitors to pay more, a very good idea, especially if we could know
that by doing so we were helping out fellow-museumgoers who might otherwise be shut out. If
only the Met had thought to appeal to its visitors before it came to such an unfortunate
The permanent collection consists of works of art from classical antiquity and ancient Egypt,
paintings and sculptures from nearly all the European masters, and an extensive collection of
American and modern art. The Met maintains extensive holdings of African, Asian, Oceanian,
Byzantine, and Islamic art. The museum is home to encyclopedic collections of musical
instruments, costumes and accessories, as well as antique weapons and armor from around
the world. Several notable interiors, ranging from first-century Rome through modern American
design, are installed in its galleries.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 for the purposes of opening a museum
to bring art and art education to the American people. It opened on February 20, 1872, and
was originally located at 681 Fifth Avenue.