For nearly five decades, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has been technically free for all, the price of admission but a suggestion offered at the front door. All visitors could pay what they wished — or what they were able.
That 1970 policy is set to change later this year: Beginning March 1, adults who live outside New York state and who are out of school will have to pay $25 to enter the museum. Seniors will pay $17, and students outside the tri-state area — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — will pay $12. Children under 12 will still enter for free.
"The world has changed dramatically in the almost 50 years since our admissions policy was last reviewed, and the way we budget and plan for the future needs to change as well," the Met's president and CEO, Daniel Weiss, said in a detailed statement announcing the change. "What is clear is that our current pay-as-you-wish policy is no longer sufficient to meet the Museum's daily operational demands."
Last July, the museum celebrated surpassing 7 million visitors in the span of a year, a milestone for "New York City's most visited tourist attraction for domestic and international audiences," according to its release at the time.
But Weiss said those attendance numbers have failed to translate to paid admissions, as "in the past 13 years the number of visitors who pay the full suggested admission has declined by 73 percent."
In the coming years, the museum expects a reduction in public funding from the city, which it says constitutes just 10 percent of its annual budget already. Faced with a lack of the kind of public funds that support the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Weiss says it's financially necessary to abandon the Met's traditional pay-as-you-wish system.
"Effectively the policy is failing," Weiss told reporters Thursday.
The announcement immediately attracted outrage.
"The 'pursuit of happiness' wasn't mentioned in the Declaration of Independence because it sounds good. It is an important aspect of a nation's health, on all fronts," said New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, in a piece published with fellow critic Holland Cotter. "So I worry that the Met's plan is classist, and nativist. It divides people into categories — rich and poor, native and foreign — which is exactly what this country does not need right now."
But the criticism was not confined to columns of newspapers.
"The wonder of the Met is that it's as open to the public as Central Park," tweeted Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker. "You can walk in with not a penny in your pocket and see some of the greatest art in the world. That's an ethical mission. Crazy that the Met is willing to renounce it."
Others worried that a plan based on visitors' ability to provide proof of residence would effectively bar undocumented New York residents — though the museum's Twitter account responded that it has been working with the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs "to develop policies that ensure we sustain the great diversity of our 7 million annual visitors."
Despite an endowment reported by Vanity Fair to be $2.5 billion and a group of trustees with a combined net worth reported to be above $500 billion, the Met has publicly faced more fiscal woes than merely declining admission revenues. As The New York Times reported last year, it also faces a ballooning, millions-deep deficit that has thrown a wrench in otherwise ambitious expansion plans — and led to last year's resignation of director Thomas Campbell amid claims of mismanagement.
Still, such woes have done little to nurture skeptics' sympathy.
"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,' " Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote Thursday.
"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."