Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Free? Suggested donation of $25? Free on some days? There are two lawsuits currently seeking to clarify. According to the NYT:
“This is a case about democracy in New York,” said Andrew G. Celli Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “We had a partnership between the government and the arts communities, and it is clear that the bargain has broken down.”
Many visitors make a different sort of bargain when they visit the museum, an internal one involving rapid and conflicting questions of guilt, moral obligation, personal financial prudence and not wanting to look cheap.
Meanwhile, the Met said that free admission went the way of free love back in 1970, when a new deal struck between the city and the museum effectively superseded all the old arrangements. Though controversy raged around the introduction of the new “Pay What You Wish” policy back then, those were simpler times, with simpler sums: many visitors paid less than 25 cents to receive the famous Met buttons (which were briefly tickets and are now stickers).
“The agreement with the city specifies that there has to be some minimal contribution,” said Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for public affairs. “There are people who express their own interpretation of the policy by paying very little. But something is required.”
There is no question that except for the most alert visitor, a murkiness surrounds the matter of how to gain entry to the museum correctly. First, there are the signs that set out admissions prices in bold type — $25 for adults; $17 for those over 65 — and also contain the smaller, unbolded word “recommended.” Then there are the printed materials noting that a perk of annual membership (cost: $60 and up) is free admission, the implication being that members get huge savings — which, in fact, they do not, since technically they are not required to pay very much to begin with.
There are Internet deals, including a recent offer from Groupon, that offer discounted tickets but fail to point out that visitors already have the right to unilaterally discount their own tickets.
“I know lifetime New Yorkers who don’t quite know what it all means,” Mr. Celli said. “And it’s much harder if you’re not a New Yorker.”
In its defense, the Met points out that it charges nothing for special exhibitions and that even $25 does not cover the cost of a museum visit.
If the Met loses in court, it stands to forfeit some $40 million in annual revenue, or about 16 percent of its $250 million operating budget. An adverse decision could also affect other museums in the city, like the American Museum of Natural History, which has a similar suggested admissions policy.
To understand the plaintiffs’ arguments, it is necessary to go back to the 1870s, when the state authorized the Parks Department to set aside land for a grand new art museum of which the city could be proud. Whether the museum should charge admission was one of the most hotly contested issues surrounding its inception. In the end, its lease with the city specified that on four days a week it “be kept open and accessible to the public free of charge.” In 1893, the state legislature enacted a law changing that to five days and two nights a week. That left the museum able to charge for admission on non-free days.
And that was where the matter stood, more or less, until the early 1970s, when the museum was running at a deficit, and its director, Thomas Hoving, asked the city for permission to charge general admission daily. The City Council balked. “A penny today may be a dollar tomorrow,” warned Councilman Carter Burden, according to court papers.
But a deal was hatched between Hoving and August Heckscher, the redoubtable New York City Parks Commissioner and Administrator of Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Heckscher said he would allow the museum to charge a fee as long as its amount was “left entirely to the individual’s discretion.”
Heckscher promised to direct the city’s Corporation Counsel office to amend the museum’s lease, but it never did. (The museum says no amendment was needed because, as the museum’s landlord, the city can set whatever rules it wants.)
According to the two lawsuits — one that says the museum deceives its visitors and is guilty of fraud, and the other a class-action suit seeking recompense for people who claim that they were duped by the policy — the Heckscher-Hoving agreement violates the lease and the law. The plaintiffs in the suits comprise five museumgoers, including a persistent critic of, and past litigant against, the museum on other matters, and two Czech citizens who responded to an Internet appeal for people who said they had been misled into paying the full suggested admissions price.
[Meredith R. Miller]