The New York museum’s introduction of an admission charge reveals a wider problem of donor dependence and a hands-off government.
In 2014, at a cost of USD$65 million, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York converted a stretch of its Fifth Avenue entrance into the David H. Koch Plaza, complete with trees, tables, and fountains. The gift of the American businessman, who’s worth an estimated USD$50 billion, is a pleasant-enough addition to what is perhaps the world’s greatest encyclopedic museum, even as its cost raised a few eyebrows. But last week, when the museum changed its policy of a ‘suggested admission’ to a mandatory USD$25 admission to anyone without a New York address, the donation has been criticized as more seriously ill-advised.
‘This single act of philanthropy (Vegas fountains and all) would have covered almost ten years of this iffy admissions policy,’ wrote Jerry Saltz in New York magazine. The USD$65-million donation is ‘an amount that makes the six-million-dollar anticipated increase from ticket sales seem puny,’ notedAlexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker.
While some have supported the ticket decision, responses like Saltz’s and Schwartz’s have been common: what is the Met thinking? And why have they spent their money so poorly, with an essentially pointless, USD$65-million plaza as Exhibit A?
In the museum’s defence, they are in a budget crisis and even a ‘puny’ USD$6 million from mandatory ticket prices still makes a difference. Although the museum has an endowment of USD$2.5 billion and its trustees have a combined worth of, incredibly, about half a trillion dollars, the Met is an exceptionally expensive museum to run. It hires world-renowned scholars, has a top-of-the-line conservation lab, it researches, archives, and records thousands of objects from other museums, puts on educational programmes and lectures, and sponsors excavations.
Currently, the museum is running a USD$10.1 million operating deficit, according to its own financial reporting. This can be traced both to the public’s decreasing willingness to pay the full suggested ticket price – a little over a decade ago, nearly 63 percent of Met-goers paid the full, suggested admission price of USD$25; last year, only 17 percent paid it – as well as the financial decisions made by Thomas P. Campbell, the former director.
But perhaps the lesson from the Met’s current financial struggles – and the real issue at stake that this ticket-price brouhaha reveals – is the trouble with the donor-based financial system relied on by the Met and so many other top-tier cultural institutions across the United States. The problem is neither with the Met itself nor with the unwillingness of most visitors to pay the suggested admission price. Rather, it lies with how cultural institutions are funded: by mega-rich philanthropists (who frequently enforce restrictions on their donations) and not by the federal government, which has long chosen to leave most American cultural institutions to fend for themselves.
‘We live in a country that believes that cultural institutions and universities should be funded philanthropically and through our own activities and not by government support,’ Daniel Weiss, the Met’s president and CEO, tells me; ‘and, as a result of that, we have to be as energetic and ingenious as we can be. And everything has to work.’