One of the great advantages of living in New York is the access to art: fine art in the museums and galleries, theater on Broadway and Off-Off, readings by top and unknown authors, screenings of every new movie that comes out (and lots of old ones, too). The catch is that it’s also expensive to live in this city, leaving you without much disposable income, and access to art is often expensive, too: good luck paying your rent and also taking in a Broadway show. But there are ways around it: there are free summer concerts, operas in the parks and plazas, and public institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose recommended-donation admissions policy ensures that New Yorkers (and even tourists) of all socioeconomic backgrounds can view its artifacts and masterworks. Its permanent collections and special exhibitions have become every New Yorker’s birthright; the big rooms full of large paintings, medieval armor, Egyptian relics, antique musical instruments and more have inspired generations of its residents, allowing anyone who passed through its doors to pay what they could and connect to our shared humanity across history, our shared respect for beauty and admiration for its expression.
But according to the terms of the museum’s lease, which were just amended by the Bloomberg administration, the cultural institution could start charging a mandatory admissions fee if it wanted to, as long as it had approval from the commissioner of the department of cultural affairs, the Daily News reports. The change is in response to recent lawsuits whose plaintiffs allege the museum’s admissions policy is misleading, that the recommended amount appears to be a required amount, deceiving attendees from shelling out $25 while those in the know pay a quarter. “What the amendment does,” a museum official told the Times, “is preserve the museum’s right to [charge admissions], which we think crucial in the wake of legal challenges to admissions that pose a threat to a vital part of our operating budget.” He promised that the museum had no plans to start charging a mandatory fee, or to start charging special fees for special exhibits (which the museum, in marked contrast to other museums, does not do), and that the institution has “no plans to make plans.”
I’m sure they don’t. Such a change would face tremendous political opposition, which no mayor or museum president would have the capital at present to overcome. And you’d hope that a self-positioned liberal like Bill de Blasio, likely to take over Gracie Mansion next year, would staff a department of cultural affairs with those who have a staunch commitment to keeping public museums public. What the lease amendment means, though, is that we now have the mechanism in place to undue decades of unrestricted access to the city’s treasures, and all it would take to activate such a mechanism would be one crisis, one financial shortfall or dip in Wall Street’s fortunes after which we’re told that it’s simply not possible to run a cultural institution without charging the public a mandatory minimum admission fee. Then, like free CUNY tuition, one more thing that made NYC great becomes one more thing people can’t afford—just one more thing to struggle for.
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