The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 144 Years Old, and Still Free… For Now


The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrated a birthday this week. Sunday, April 13, marked the 144th anniversary of the Met’s incorporation by the New York state legislature, which makes this week as good a time as any to revisit the museum’s mission as outlined in the legislation that created it.

The Met, according to its founding charter, would be responsible for “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of the arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, furnishing popular instruction and recreation.” The New York state legislature envisioned it as a museum for the people — not just for members of the middle and upper classes with, say, $25 to burn on a rainy day.

That populist mission was reaffirmed in the museum’s 1878 lease agreement with the City of New York, which included a clause requiring the Museum to be free for visitors most days of the week. But after a big Groupon mix-up and and a pair of lawsuits, the Met won the right to add an amendment to the lease last October.

According to the new terms, the museum will be able to set admission prices to its permanent galleries with permission from the Commissioner of the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs (whose consent, the author adds pointedly, “shall not be unreasonably withheld”). Special exhibitions, group tours, educational programs, performances, lectures, conferences — the museum can charge what it sees fit for those things.

In October, museum director Thomas Campbell hailed the decision to amend the lease, saying in a statement, “The quantity and quality of service provided by the Museum makes the preservation of its varied income streams more important than ever.”

For now, the museum still operates on a donation basis. Pay what you wish, and if you wish to pay less than the suggested $25 donation the ticket clerk may scowl at you, but in that moment you should take comfort in the fact that, according to the Met’s most recent 990, Mr. Campbell makes more than $1.1 million dollars a year — a compensation package made possible by the continued generosity of visitors like you.