New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently made headlines in the art world as the defendant in a lawsuit brought by two museum members for the way its admission fees “deceive and defraud” the public. The plaintiffs argue that the Met uses deceptive language to make people think they have to pay an admission fee of $25, and that most visitors surveyed are unaware that the fee is actually a voluntary donation.
Online readers who commented on a New York Times article and a Huffington Post article have differing opinions on several different angles of the story: whether the lawsuit is frivolous, whether the Met (and/or museums in general) should charge for admission, whether it is uncouth to refuse to pay or donate, whether the Met’s language is clear or deceptive, and whether the Met hassles or guilt-trips visitors into paying.
I want to be clear that I support the right and need for museums to charge an admission fee. As a Washingtonian, I am lucky to be surrounded by a bounty of free museums, but I understand that many museums are unable to operate without charging a ticket price.
The Met’s situation is complicated by the museum’s charter and lease in New York City, which states that entrance to the museum must be free. They are, however, allowed to take donations. If the Met needs money, but is not allowed to require an admission fee, is it ethical to make visitors believe they have to pay?
I wish to focus on the effect such practices have on the visitor experience. In comments on the articles, people wrote anecdotes about their visits to the Met.
Some did not meet with any rudeness or resistance from ticket sellers:
“I give $5 — and don’t think twice about it. I’ve never had a problem. I’ve never had dirty looks.”
“I just tell them I live here and I understand that the museum is free…they just nod and give me the sticker/pin.”
Other visitors, conversely, had negative experiences:
“When we pay them less than what they ask, sometimes we get an argument from them, and sometimes we get dirty looks.”
One visitor went to the Met when unemployed and unable to pay the full price, and “I had to directly make the point I was paying what I felt like paying not the recommended amount before [the ticket seller] gave us our tickets.”
Others report being told that they had to pay something:
“A few weeks ago, I asked the admissions desk if I could get into the Met for free, and she told me ([with] quite an attitude) that I HAD to pay something to get in and that no one can get in for free.”
“After the New York Times published an article on this ‘free’ point years ago (pointing out that it was in the museum’s charter), I went to the Met. The cashiers there angrily and very strongly implied that I was a freeloader of the first order if I didn’t pay their fee…I hated being made to feel like a worm for exercising my right to visit the museum on the very basis specified in its charter.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyer left a comment stating that “the Museum’s lease specifies four of the days on which the Museum must be free — Wed, Thurs, Fri and Sat,” though I was unable to find a reference to this policy anywhere else online.
Another commenter referred to theoretical free Fridays:
“Recently, on a Friday, I tried to enter without paying. I told the cashier that I thought Fridays were free. He replied that everyone had to pay something, no matter the day.”
According to one comment, there was confusion among staff themselves about the fee:
“The last time I visited the guard I asked about the Fee himself thought it was mandatory.”
One comment describes a bizarre interpretation of the word “recommended”:
“I got into a fight with a security guard at The Cloisters because they said I had to pay, and when I said I know it’s a ‘recommended”‘ fee, they told me it’s ‘recommended’ that I come to the Museum, but I didn’t have to.”
Others expressed that they are willing to pay, and everyone else should be, too.
“Why wouldn’t you want to throw something in the pot of if you can!? It must cost a small fortune to run that place, restore art and keep up with repairs etc. If you go you should pay something even [it's] only recommended IMHO.”
In examining this issue, it is important to remember that museums are, ideally, trustworthy and welcoming places.
We put a lot of trust in museums. We trust that their scholarship and research are sound, and that their exhibit labels are accurate. We trust them to be unbiased sources of information. We entrust to them the stewardship of buildings, priceless art, rare historical documents, and living specimens. Moreover, we trust them with our money. If we make a large donation to a non-profit museum, we trust the museum to use the gift wisely and in line with its mission statement. And government-funded museums are trusted with tax dollars from all of us.
A museum’s trustworthiness should also be manifest in how it communicates admissions policies to visitors. If a payment is mandatory, it is called a fee. If paying is voluntary, it is called a donation. It is not trustworthy for a museum to be simultaneously free altogether (if you consult its legal charter) and pay-what-you-wish (if you consult the fine print on signage) and paid with a set fee (if you read the signs quickly or consult the front-of-house staff). Charging a fee in order to cover expenses is ethical; deception is not.
The confusion over prices sets up potential for tension that would not exist if the museum had a clear and consistent admissions policy. Commenters who received dirty looks or who felt like “a worm” entered the galleries with their visits already off to a bad start, colored by this initial encounter with museum staff. Yes, the Met is full of treasures, and not everyone’s visit will be spoiled by one interaction alone. Still, if we in the museum world want visitors, we need to make them feel welcome, rather than angry or guilty, when they arrive.
One sentiment alluded to in some comments is that the Met’s practice is ethical because locals (already subsidizing the museum through taxes) know they need not pay the full recommended amount, while tourists who do not know better should feel obligated to pay $25 for what may literally be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While I support the idea that museums should work to be affordable and accessible to their immediate neighbors, I do not think an underhanded approach is the right way to go about this goal. Additionally, if the anecdotes quoted above are true, then even locals have been met with intimidation when they tried to enter for less than $25.
I also want to make clear that I am uncomfortable with the idea that litigation is the answer to everything. However, I am glad that this dialogue is taking place in the public arena, for it is an important one.
Again, I am not arguing against admission fees. I feel strongly, however, that admission fees (or lack thereof) need to be communicated honestly and clearly, for the sake of the visitors and for the sake of the museum’s credibility.
The Met’s situation will be tricky to resolve, because stipulations in the museum’s charter are at odds with the fiduciary realities of maintaining the institution. But the approach in place now is not sustainable, nor does it promote the museum’s trustworthiness or ability to make visitors feel welcome.
November’s blog theme is Museums Versus the Problems of the World.