An 1878 lease agreement requiring free admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) in New York City on most days of the week is being violated, according to a class-action lawsuit. The suit, filed on March 5 by Filip Saska, Tomáš Nadrchal, and Stephen Michelman, claims that the Met has “deceived and defrauded” the public into paying a fee to enter the museum.
In 1871, the New York State Legislature authorized New York City to construct the museum. In 1878, the legislature authorized the city to expend funds to “equip and furnish” the museum.
Court papers charge, “The Museum Building was originally built, furnished and equipped for the MMA and provided with its physical plant, without charge, and in consideration for which the MMA agreed to provide to the public, free of charge on most days of the week, access to the art and culture therein.”
The plaintiffs cite the terms of the 1878 lease: “That the exhibit halls of [the Museum] Building shall on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of each week, and on all legal and public holidays except Sundays, be kept open and accessible to the public free of charge from ten o’clock AM until half an hour before sunset....”
The lawsuit acknowledges that in 1892 the New York legislature required the museum to be open and free to the public all seven days of the week, but that turned out to be a hardship on the institution. In 1893, the legislature changed the terms to require that the MMA “…be kept open and accessible to the public hereafter free of charge throughout the year for five days each week, one of which shall be Sunday afternoon and also for two evenings in each week....”
The Met, the suit claims, “can only charge a fee for admission on two days per week, which days are not permitted to include Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, or legal or public holidays, and no admission fees can be charged on Sunday afternoons.”
What about the $25 entrance fee? Look closely—that’s only a “recommended” amount. Visitors can pay any amount—even as little as one cent—and still be admitted.
The suit alleges that MMA cashiers “are trained and instructed not to disclose to visitors that they can pay less than the stated Admission Fee, or nothing at all, and still receive an Admission Button to enter the Museum Exhibition Halls…. Cashiers are trained and instructed to pressure and embarrass visitors into paying the stated Admission Fee….Cashiers are, in fact, financially and otherwise incentivized not to disclose to visitors that they could pay less than the stated Admission Fees, or nothing at all.”
The Met disputes the suit. A note published on the Met’s Web site on April 4 by the museum director Thomas Campbell stated:
“[The lawsuit] inaccurately alleges that the Met deceives the public by not making its long-standing pay-what-you-wish admission policy clear enough, and asserts that we are violating a nineteenth-century New York State law that once mandated that we be free to the public.
“… [A] recommended or suggested admission structure was instituted only after the Museum received approval from New York City’s Administrator of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs more than four decades ago. No current State legislation requires the Museum to be free to the public.
“… [T]he recommended admission policy is clearly posted at all entry points to the Museum’s Main Building and The Cloisters, on all printed materials, and on our website. Should a visitor ask a cashier about the admission policy, the message is always equally clear: the amount is voluntary; please pay what you wish.”
Campbell goes on to state:
“The current Met operating budget is some $250 million a year. We rely on many sources—including membership, gifts and grants, corporate contributions, merchandise sales, restaurant revenue, and endowment income—to meet these annual expenses, and admission revenue is critical among them. Much as we appreciate the continued support of the City of New York, direct government assistance and energy subsidies—once the Met’s largest sources of revenue—now constitute only 11% of our income. The fact is, even if future Museum admission rates were fixed at $25, the Met would still be underwriting the expense of every visit, which on average costs the institution more than $40.”
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest