On January 4, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it was changing its “pay-as-you-wish” policy to one in which adults from outside New York State would be required to fork over a mandatory $25 entrance fee, while students from anywhere beyond the tri-state area would get hit for twelve bucks. Kids under 12 will continue to get in free, and locals with I.D. to prove they live in the Empire State will still choose what they pay. The decision has artists’ Facebook pages buzzing, art critics debating, and residents firing off letters to the New York Times.
Those of us not born in New York may remember the first time we looked at art in the city, and the often mind-blowing impression it made on us. For many aspiring artists, a pilgrimage to the Met—with its millennia-spanning collection ranging from Egyptian mummies to Nigerian sculpture to New York School paintings—is a rite of passage. Now, though, might a family visiting from the hinterlands bypass the expense, never fully realizing what they have missed?
What does it mean when an international city decides to put our shared cultural heritage behind a paywall? Is it just another way to soak the rubes? Village Voice art writers R.C. Baker, Jennifer Krasinski, Siddhartha Mitter, Mallika Rao, and Christian Viveros-Fauné sat down to discuss the machinations of the Met’s decision.
R.C. Baker: So, what do we think of charging various classes of visitors different prices to see the same works of art?
Mallika Rao: Differential pricing is hardly a new practice. My experience at the Taj Mahal is that it is essentially free for Indians, and quite expensive for tourists. But that rationale is buoyed by the fact that often the locals in those economies are poorer than the tourists. Also, tax money is used to maintain the site. And I’m kind of confused why the Met gets so little money from the government—the press release says they get only 10 percent of their budget from taxes.
Siddhartha Mitter: I was going to raise the same point as Mallika, that differential pricing is very common around the world, but not in what we would call developed countries. Still, I don’t like the pay-as-you-wish model. I think there is a value to transparency about exactly how much everyone is being charged.
I think that pay-as-you-wish is a kind of noblesse oblige poor-shaming. It is passive aggressive because people don’t know how much to give because of the way it is enforced in museums that do it, in that they charge you the full amount unless you assertively say that you want to pay less. I would be all in favor of having a set rate—and there’s nothing wrong with an adult rate, student rate, senior and youth rate: just make it transparent and make that rate something that people can afford.
Rao: So impose a rate, but much lower than $25.
Mitter: Yes. I would be okay with a $10 adult rate, $5 discount rate.
Christian Viveros-Fauné: I think the problem with that is that the original lease with the city from the late 1800s demands, essentially, that New Yorkers attend for free. Period. And there were two lawsuits in 2013 where they were arguing for clarity on the admissions language, to get rid of it and just make it 100 percent free for everybody. And unfortunately, the judge decided that she didn’t want to allow that.
Now, the $6 to $11 million that the museum and the city agree they will make with this new policy doesn’t seem like a lot of money. There are a lot of ways of getting around this problem, besides coming up with a specific fee for particular groups to pay.
The first dilemma we’re facing is whether to charge or not to charge. And then the secondary thing is, OK, if we decide to charge to help maintain the well-being of this institution—which is certainly an institution everyone around this table wants to protect—who do we charge and how much? But I think we all agree here, that none of us are for the Met charging.
Baker: Sure. But it is part of the mix of how they support this place and keep it open 360-plus days a year. I did question whether it’s a good idea to just soak the out-of-towners for the benefit of the locals. The problem is, we New Yorkers view New York as an international town—which is why some other parts of America hate us—and we want to share this great institution with everyone else.
Jennifer Krasinski: Well, particularly when the museum is full of ill-gotten gains. The Met was founded on some robber baron money back in the day, and so I think to pretend that this is a New York resource only would be a shame. And I was surprised at how little money will come in from this change—$6 to $11 million? Which is nothing to sneeze at, but isn’t it money that can be scratched up somewhere else?
Baker: And how ironic—not to say hypocritical—is it for the Met, a bastion of civilization, to allow the Koch brothers to finance a fountain when their businesses directly threaten civilization through seeking to weaken environmental regulations? Would it be more moral to take their blood money for, say, a big enough endowment to make admission free to all in perpetuity?
Mitter: But there are a couple different issues here. I’m OK with the Met and other museums charging as long as it is a low rate. In principle, I have no problem with that—I’m not offended by a museum charging in the way that I am offended by having to, say, pay $5 for a luggage cart when you arrive at JFK airport when everywhere else in the world it’s free.
However, the second issue is, if we’re doing an analysis right now of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its financial practices as an economic entity, then, yeah, hiking up an obligatory charge to $25 for any major class of visitors is quite offensive, relative to everything else we know about the finances for the Met.
Rao: For me, it’s a slippery slope. Clearly they’re getting as much money as they can within the constraints of those long-ago laws. So if you don’t have some kind of protection in place, presumably every museum will end up charging what they can. The idea that a museum would operate out of some kind of sense of civic duty, and goodness of its heart, seems tenuous to me these days.
Viveros-Fauné: I’m not sure why it seems tenuous, though, because that’s the way museums were initially conceived.
Rao: Yes, but when they’re pushed up against a wall, they’re going to do whatever they need.
Viveros-Fauné: Exactly. They’re ceding ground to a managerial imperative at the same time that the city is doing a similar thing. With Mayor de Blasio and Tom Finkelpearl, a super-liberal commissioner of cultural affairs, what they decided to do—and this is where their interests meet—is to somehow or other shave money from the Met and give it to less wealthy institutions. And that probably means institutions like the Queens Museum, it probably means a number of institutions at the margins, and that’s great that they’re giving money to them, but they’re peeling it off the Met to do that.
Mitter: Is that what’s happening?
Viveros-Fauné: Yeah, that’s me reading between the lines. That’s the only way I think this administration rationalizes this move: essentially, the Met can feed itself.
Mitter: So the problem is the city seeing cultural allocation as zero-sum as opposed to positive-sum.
Viveros-Fauné: But also that the Met has decided, in the persons of [Met president and C.E.O.] Daniel Weiss and the trustees, to back away from an imperative that was far more civic just yesterday.
Rao: Right. And my point was not to justify the Met’s behavior; it’s that there need to be protections put in place by some sort of objective party. If we say that museums should be either low-cost or free, I think you have to assume that’s not going to happen if they’re allowed to charge.
Viveros-Fauné: That’s true, but that safeguard is supposed to be the city. The other safeguard is supposed to be us, the fifth estate.
Mitter: The watchdog press.
Baker: Did you say the “washed-up press”?
Baker: Another thing in this vein is that if you go back to the age of great government subsidies, in the 1930s and ’40s, we had a benevolent leader—you could call FDR a benevolent dictator in some ways—in the U.S., so we had the WPA and we got some great art out of it. But then you also had National Socialist art in Nazi Germany and Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, and these were state-subsidized forms of art that … well … didn’t work out so hot. So I’m wary of just saying let the government subsidize, because then we get into NEA controversies such as the censorship of [Robert] Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.
Krasinski: But again, $6 to $11 million? This is all we’re talking about with this change? But we’re also talking about a museum that recently acquired a second wing—the former Whitney, now the Met Breuer. So, the smoke-and-mirrors dance—”Oh, we’re hurting for the money”—that is what is pissing me off. There’s an exceeding lack of transparency, and I think that this has more to do with a sort of ethic in general than it does with a particular need. You can’t take $65 million from the Koch brothers to build ugly fountains and then try and charge people 25 bucks to come see them.
Rao: To me, this is such a clever work-around of the lawsuits. And it is so gross—it’s like, “OK, fine. You’re going to make us change the wording on the admissions signs, guess what?”
I remember when the lawsuit broke and people made fun of it, but it was actually a quite interesting suit, that they were deceptively wording the signage. And so they were forced to change the wording to make it clear that paying full admission is voluntary, that it is actually “pay-as-you-wish,” and the outcome of that is that they’ve now made it not voluntary.
Baker: I remember coming up here from art school in Baltimore, our professors always said, “Go to the Met. It’s basically free.” And you’d see the sign and say, “Okay. I can pay a quarter.” And when I moved to New York, I always laughed at people who had a membership.
Rao: But you shouldn’t laugh at them—they’re helping to pay the museum’s cost.
Baker: Right, I understand that now. But you still have the painter who is coming to see just one painting and she says, “Here’s a dollar, because I’m only going to be here half an hour.”
Mitter: I did read an article in the last few days about how [Jean-Michel] Basquiat used to go and look when he was a kid.
Baker: Sure. It’s the place where—you’d be talking about a painting the Met has with someone at an opening, and the next day you’d go there to see it—and the beauty of the Met is it could be an early Renaissance panel or a Jasper Johns, because the collection’s so broad.
Rao: To Siddhartha’s point about the poor-shaming aspect of “pay-as-you-wish,” actually you could essentially “rich-shame.” You could do a very clever marketing campaign.
The lawsuit was unfortunate because it was pointing out an issue, and the Met sidestepped it. They could have created signage that did a sort of natural selection, where the richest people feel pressured to pay the most.
Roberta Smith suggested this approach at the Times. That’s an interesting effect of membership. Because who becomes a member? It’s wealthier people who want the perks of the Met. They want to say, “I’m a member of the Met.” You get previews and access and you’re part of the scene.
Mitter: The way we pay for things now, electronically, and after the order comes and the three different tip amounts arrive—do you want to give 15 percent, 20 percent, or 25 percent—and there’s this whole notion of nudging people in a certain direction. If you were given, at a certain point, an option of how much you want to pay, maybe you could be given three prices, and maybe it’s directed in such a way that, psychologically, richer people will realize that they should pay more, and less well-off people won’t feel bad.
Rao: What if you pay when you leave? Like a service: “How good was it?”
Baker: Yeah. How much of a tip do you want to leave your cultural server? So instead of taking your little metal badge off and throwing it in the bin, like in the old days, you’d get something more like a taxicab screen of percentages. And it could say “If your annual income is this much, this is the suggested amount to pay for your visit.”
Rao: And they could even put up stats: “It takes this many people to run this place. It takes this much for upkeep.” And then you choose. I would put money in.
Viveros-Fauné: But for all these possible funding schemes we’re mentioning, they presuppose at least a refresh of a civic ethos that we as a culture are rapidly forgetting. Part of that erosion is on display right here, with this discussion. The fact that the Met’s decided to charge in the first place plays into this idea of the financialization of art.
Rao: That’s the question. Why did they immediately go to this? Why were there no other options?
Viveros-Fauné: In a way, it is a crisis of imagination. Weiss got an MBA in management from Yale, so you’d think he and his people would be thinking through ideas like these. The suspicion is, if they did, they just bulldozed right over them because there’s a faster way to get from A to B, B being a quicker path to the financial imperative.
Krasinski: Is this strategic? This does have that awful smell of a consumerist belief that you get what you pay for. So, if you’re paying for something it must be more valuable. We can see how that would feed into something potentially sinister.
Baker: And that gets at our current class of patronage, in which the oligarchs and hedge fund managers are firm believers that your worth is strictly your bank account, as opposed to the art creators, who just want to pay a dollar to visit one painting.
Viveros-Fauné: Just to run with the ethos of “you get what you pay for,” which is often sort of the implied idea that you never get art without big money, that you never get art without the Medicis, you never get art without the Kochs, you never get art without any big collectors—that’s simply not true. Leonardo did a lot of doodling on his own, and some of Velazquez’s best paintings were done, not even on spec, but just for himself, and Goya made The Disasters of War and never even published them, and he lost money on the Caprichos, and so on. These stories are part of artists’ lore. Collectors are important, but they’re not a precondition for artists to make important art.
Baker: But artists don’t think “you get what you pay for.” They—
Krasinski: Well, at least they didn’t used to.
Baker: Sure, the ones like [Damien] Hirst and [Jeff] Koons do think that way; they make it part of their art.
Rao: I think art, as we experience it, is different in the past ten years than it was before. I remember going to see the Rain Room [at PS 1]. It was like going to Disney World.
Someone involved with this current decision called the Met an “attraction.” And to me there is lot about this that just doesn’t sit right, because this was not the obvious logical conclusion they needed to jump to, and yet they did.
Baker: You touch on it when you say they called the Met an “attraction.” It’s like “Six Flags Over Manhattan.” We all know it’s not that—that’s the whole point of the Met; it’s not a rollercoaster ride.
Mitter: Can we toss in something else: This is a really weird policy to enforce. There’s all this paperwork—
Baker: What? You have to show your ConEd bill or something?
Krasinski: You need to show some sort of New York State ID.
Mitter: There are a lot of issues around that. But looking past those issues, it sends a really terrible signal to visitors outside New York, that they have to pay a very large amount of money—25 bucks each is a lot of money—if they’re a family or group, and they’re stuck paying that much when locals don’t, considering that—talk about attractions—this is an exceedingly unpleasant town to get around for tourists. The subways are a catastrophe, the airport is a catastrophe—if they’re foreign they had some terrible experience getting in—and this is a very hard city to get around if you’re not from here. So this only compounds that effect.
Krasinski: “Welcome to JFK. It’s flooding in JFK, and it’s going to cost you and your family $75 to go to the Met.”
Viveros-Fauné: I just remembered that the Prado is free for Spaniards, like most museums in Spain. Just tourists have to pay.
Rao: But to charge Midwesterners more for the Met than, you know, Trump, a New Yorker—
Baker: But that’s what his whole presidency is predicated on—winners and losers.
Mitter: It’s political expedience. This is something going on with the city government, so it’s easy because the city is only accountable to New Yorkers, and non-New Yorkers can’t vote against de Blasio.
Baker: Maybe the attendants at the Met should wear those T-shirts that say “Welcome to New York. Now go home” as they take your tickets.
Krasinski: That’s the other thing. How much is this going to damage the number of attendees?
Rao: I think greatly. Seventy-five bucks for a family? That’s nuts.
Viveros-Fauné: But I wonder if, for example the Modern’s pricing, which is fairly new, and very much outrageous, has hurt their gate at all. I would guess probably not at all—
Baker: Not on days I’ve been there.
Viveros-Fauné: This is a city that attracts visitors, and those visitors tend to have money.
Mitter: You’re talking about financialization again. What is the maximum amount we can extract from people before they turn away? That’s the same thing as the airlines: How small can we make the seat?
Viveros-Fauné: The financing model in other developed countries clearly is one where the government is more involved and the notion of the public interest is still maintained.
For instance [scrolling through phone] at the Louvre, they have preferential pricing, but it is a huge group that benefits—let’s see. “Free for visitors under the age of 18, 18-to-25-year-old residents of the EU, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, teachers of art and art history and the applied arts, artists, job seekers, or people on income support,” and it is open free some Sundays, and on Bastille Day. Of course.
Viveros-Fauné: I think there’s a way of seeing the Met’s admission hike as the circuit breakers of civil government here having failed. Because up to now, there has been a red line that trustees were not willing to cross, since there was some notion that these institutions should be more accessible than not.
We’re in an environment now, nationally, where these circuit breakers have sort of started to corrode, fail, and the equation doesn’t measure up the way it used to. The ideal that people should not have to pay for a gift like entering the Met is going the way of the dodo.
Mitter: Just as you can have financial accountability, there’s a problem with moral accountability—
Viveros-Fauné: Civic accountability.
Mitter: Right. It is a moral accountability of a civic flavor. We should be asking, at a time of financialization and neo-liberalism and Trump and decay of education—we should be asking—of all institutions, whether government or nonprofit or foundations—we should be asking of all institutions that purport to be acting in the civic interest, how it currently conceives that civic interest in light of the situation around it.
Rao: Yes, and the Met has been very mute on what its duty is. I don’t know if they still have a sense of what the point of the museum is now.
Baker: The hedge-fund mentality has taken over the asylum.
Krasinski: Ironically, if the Met really wanted to brand itself in this moment as a relevant, vibrant cultural institution—which we know it is once we go through the doors—it would be taking the opposite stance: “You know what? Everybody in!” As disparity increases, education dissolves, and so forth, they should say, “We open our doors to absolutely everybody.” This is a missed opportunity for them.