Three people recently filed a class-action suit against The Metropolitan Museum of Art, alleging that the signs advertising the museum’s admission prices are unclear. For clarity’s sake: it’s free. Admission to public institutions in public buildings is legally required to be free of charge most days of the week, and the Met’s posted $25 admission price is a recommended donation. Visitors aren’t required to pay that price—you can pay 10 cents if you want—but the museum would like you to pay the full $25.
Filip Saska and Tomáš Nadrchal, of the Czech Republic, and Stephen Michelman, a New York City resident and retired lawyer, think that’s sketchy. “Instead of providing free and open access to art for the masses, without regard to economic status (as originally designed), the MMA has transformed the Museum Building and Museum Exhibition Halls into an expensive, fee-for-viewing, elite tourist attraction, where only those of financial means can afford to enter this publicly-subsidized institution situated on prime City-owned land,” reads the preliminary statement of the suit, before going on to allege that the admission policy “deceives and defrauds members of the public.”
But is the museum really defrauding its visitors when the fine print states the truth? It has after all provided information that lets visitors know that the cost of admission is recommended. The question is whether the fine print is a reasonable place to put such information; if we accept that the museum isn’t defrauding its visitors, we must also accept that fine print is a clear and honest place to communicate. We all know that’s not true. I recently saw an ad that promised LASIK eye surgery for $750; in the small print, it turned out that the price was $750 per eye. There are undoubtedly worse examples.
Given the frequency with which this practice is abused in the larger world, it might not be such a bad idea to take steps to curb it. But are museums the best place to start? The Met isn't a private corporation seeking to fleece its customers; they're a public institution looking for additional revenue streams in a climate of steadily decreasing government support. According to GuideStar, an online service that hosts nonprofit financial statements and reports, only 15 percent of its revenue in 2011 came from the government. That's not insignificant, but it’s certainly small enough that the museum needs additional means of support.
Many have cited the Met’s $2.58 billion investment portfolio as a reason it shouldn't charge an entrance fee, but I disagree. The Met houses one of the most important collections of art in the world. It's essential that it have extensive resources to draw on should anything happen. In light of the recent devastation wrought by Sandy, that concern isn't as farfetched as it might once have seemed.
All that said, concerns that the Met may not be reaching out to all members of the public with equal zeal aren't unfounded. The museum has a mandate to reach out to all income classes, and it can't meet that mandate with a recommended entrance price of $25. The Met needs to institute special programs for lower income families. The suit doesn’t specifically address this concern, but I do hope it will prompt better outreach.
For that to happen, though, the focus of this discussion would need to shift away from regionalism and toward the general question of how museums might better communicate with the larger public. The reaction to the lawsuit has generally hinged on the idea that the recommended admission exploits tourists while most New Yorkers have read the fine print. That doesn’t quite make sense; tourists plan what they do and when more than anyone who lives in the city. In truth, the recommended admission is more like a sliding scale based on how often you visit; as you go to the museum more frequently, you learn that the admission is “pay-what-you-can,” and you start to pay less as a result.
Even the suit frames the real issues poorly, describing the high recommended admission as a cost that transforms the museum into an "elite tourist attraction." This language is meant to exploit the idea that art is enjoyed by snobs and elitists and is intentionally made inaccessible to the general public. The real issue here is that art requires free time, and poor people don’t have a lot of that. They’re busy trying to survive. It’s a real problem, and one museums can’t solve on their own.