The Met positioned the new policy as a response to declining revenue and significant deficits. Despite an enormous increase in attendance in recent years (up 40 percent in less than a decade), revenue from the suggested admission policy declined as the number of people who voluntarily paid the full suggested admission went down by 73 percent. The Met has also been running deficits, has been forced to curtail its exhibition schedule, scale back renovation plans, and cut staff and costs across the institution. It is also considering selling the apartment it has maintained as a perk for its director.
But going from being a museum that was free to all to a museum with a mandatory admission for nearly a third of its visitors is the nuclear option for raising revenue. It's hard to believe that there were no other solutions to the fiscal crisis, given that the museum estimates that the new admission policy "will increase admissions revenue as a percentage of The Met's overall budget by 2 to 3 percent." For a mere 2 to 3 percent increase in what the new admission revenue will contribute, the museum has fundamentally changed the cultural status of the institution, its position within the larger ecosystem of American museums and its relationship to the American and international public, especially families who visit New York on a budget.
The Met's announcement stressed what museum and city leaders feel is a powerful mitigating factor in this decision to go from free for all to free for some: New Yorkers won't be affected. "The Met can continue attracting visitors from around the world to our city, while keeping its doors open to everyone who calls New York home," said one New York City Council member. "Most important, today's announcement ensures that we keep The Met open and accessible for all New Yorkers and their families," said another.
But a "stick it to the tourists" policy won't just sponge funds from the out-of-state bridge-and-tunnel crowd, or worse, the grubby hicks from flyover. It will say to donors — who should take note and respond appropriately — that the Met no longer intends to be the country's de facto national art museum. By sheer size and visitor numbers, it may remain the most prominent art museum in the country. But it now distinguishes between a local public — those who live in New York — and the rest of the country, which it treats merely as clients. It cannot reasonably approach major donors, those with art they want to leave in the public trust and those with money who hope to support access to that art, and say: We are the nation's museum. Now, the Met is a New York-based cultural attraction, competing with all the others not just for tourist dollars, but for donors who should factor in the tiered-admission system when deciding where they want their money to go.
Indeed, you could hear a tiny but significant shift in how the museum is perceived even as the news broke. "When you look at the landscape of attraction pricing," the head of the city's tourism agency told the New York Times, "the Met is an incredible value at $25." The landscape of attraction pricing. The incredible value. The Met has turned itself over to the commodifiers of culture, in hopes of raising about $6 million to $8 million extra dollars a year, against its $305 million annual budget.
Ordinary tourists, especially those who visit only occasionally, may not notice the change, given how much of what was once public in America is now being monetized. They will pass through the sterile Fifth Avenue plaza and past the ostentatious new fountains donated by mega-billionaire David Koch (a $65 million gift to the landscape of attractions), and ascend the magisterial front stairs until they come to the ticket booths. And they will wonder, is it worth it? Some will say yes, especially if their kids are younger than 12, and can enter free. Those with teenagers — arguably more susceptible to and in need of art than their younger siblings — will have a harder decision to make.
Regular visitors to the New York area will definitely notice the change, especially those for whom the Met was a place to visit for a few minutes or an hour, a place to reconnect with beloved old paintings, a mansion of many rooms where there was always some place to escape from the frenzy of the city. The Met will simply be one more museum competing for their spare $25. The Met's audience outside of New York includes many people, including former New Yorkers, who still think of the museum as their own. In terms of affection, and the sense of public ownership, they have alienated a significant audience that once felt fondly about the place.
As the New York Times critic Holland Cotter said in a public exchange with his colleague Roberta Smith, the new policy may also discriminate against New Yorkers without identification, and "plays directly into the hands of anti-immigrant sentiment that is now poisoning this country." Smith called it "classist and nativist." The museum has a program to allow undocumented New Yorkers access, but as the Trump administration grows more bellicose and bullying in its relations with "sanctuary" cities, will undocumented residents feel comfortable using the program? It is a curious inversion of the old paternalism that created museums like the Met, to go from wanting to "elevate" and "Americanize" a diverse society to instituting a policy that prioritizes keeping the museum free for some of this country's most exclusive census blocks.
The failure of identity and purpose embodied in this decision positions other institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, to make a strong new appeal to the philanthropic class: Your money would be better spent at a museum that has always been free, and gives access to art held in the public trust no matter what Zip code you live in. The claim of Washington, D.C.'s cultural institutions to be the country's "national" institutions has always been a bit dubious, given their relative prominence to arts organizations in larger metropolitan areas such as New York. But the claim became more plausible today, when the Met decided that it prefers to be large but local rather than public and preeminent.