March 27, 2013

WANG: The Met’s Deceit

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With Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box at the MoMA and our beloved Johnson Museum grabbing primo half-page ad space in the Sunday New York Times, museums have been on my brain. Despite my ardent intention to renounce all thoughts regarding academia this break, seeing the new blockbuster Impressionism exhibition at the Met was on the to-do list. Even in my week of fucks not given and guiltless inactivity (read: spring break), I got my ass up off the couch long enough to holla at dem Renoirs.

And though anyone who’s been to the Met more than once would probably catch on to the fact that the purported $25 admission fee is “recommended” and not “required,” I do still feel super stealthy when I slide over my donation of, like, four bucks (shamelessly, sometimes even less) for a ticket to this New York institution. And just the same, every time I feel the guilt creep up for my meager donation — until I pay $9+ for a Hoegaarden on the rooftop garden café. However, this time when I asked for a ticket from the teller, she immediately rung me up for the recommended price. What gives, Met? Had I not known any better, I would’ve forked over the cash, but since I’ve been privy to this admissions policy ever since my Latin teacher taught me the meaning of “ancillary fee” in the ninth grade, I held strong as I slid over my wimpy singles.

I got a moderately dirty look in response.

I wasn’t too perturbed by her stank eye, but it did get me thinking that the cashier’s nudging was pretty clever. Like really clever — I mean, have you ever seen a tourist not put up the cash? Wait — so clever that it could be illegal?

Actually, that’s not inaccurate. Soon after, I learnt of a new lawsuit, which accuses the Met of deception for using misleading marketing and cashier training to dupe unwary visitors into paying more. The lawyers on the case are former patrons who believe the small, unbolded type of “recommended” on the price list violates 1893 New York state law, which mandates that the public should be admitted for free at least five days and two evenings a week. If successful, the suit would not only change the admissions policy, more explicit signage but also reimburse recent visitors who believe they were misled.

The museum defends itself by pointing out that the 1893 law had been superseded in 1970 when the city of New York agreed to allow the Met to charge a fee so long as the public was allowed to determine it. The Met contends that only about 40% of visitors pay full price, and the gate proceeds go towards free entrance for special exhibitions, but there still seems to be some type of duplicity afoot. I later learnt by inquiring friends and observing the lobby interactions that this confusion and aggressive nudging was a very common occurrence, stank eye included. It seems, then, that the museum nearly shames the visitor into paying. Remembering the requisite guilt that accompanies my own paltry donation, I know the feeling well, and mind you, this is coming from a girl who once pretended to be a mom to her three high school peers so they could enter the MoMA under the child’s fare (which actually worked). Further, the Met’s deceit only seems all the more intentional when considering the abundant signage upon entrance which advocates becoming a member of the museum, for which you will receive the benefit of free admission. This, of course, implies that free admission is not currently the default.

So should you feel guilty for not paying the Met’s recommended fee? On one hand, $25 to experience some of the world’s most masterful art and artifacts is a steal. On the other hand, consider that not even the Louvre charges so much (not to mention that most UK museums are free). But shelling out the $25 means you’re a decent person looking to support cultural institutions, right? Well, as it turns out, not really. Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a non-profit, and logic says that non-profits are struggling in this economy, the Met is actually balls deep in the cash flow. As one of the world’s richest cultural institutions, it currently holds a $2.58 billion investment portfolio, and only 11 percent of its operating expenses were covered by gate proceeds in the 2012 fiscal year. Besides, the museum is required by law to maintain this loose pricing, and it gets a sweet deal in exchange: annual grants from the city and free rent for its coveted spot along Central Park (state-owned property). Not to mention, you really are paying for your ticket even if you’re not consciously paying for admission each time — thanks to your tax bill, of course.

With numbers as large as $2.58 billion, it’s easy to simplify the situation and conclude that the Met is rolling in dough. Well, it is — kind of, at least — but it’s not this straightforward. After all, the operating budget and the investment portfolio are not totally related to each other, and it is common in museums for only a small portion of operating expenses to come from admissions charges. It’s not as if the Met could sell any one of its priceless masterpieces for capital should they run low. It is bound by strict laws forbidding this practice, as each piece loses all monetary value and instead acquires solely cultural value upon acquisition. This means no money is translated, but much money is spent in the conservation and restoration of these works.

So, in general, no, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not paying the Met’s recommended fee, but maybe the Met should feel guilty for their dickish front desk behavior. If you really wanted to, you could march up to the cashier and in exchange for your ticket, ask them to break a penny if you’re feeling particularly like an asshole when they charge you the full price. Though it’s doubtful that this new lawsuit would dramatically alter the Met’s policies, or even reimburse any of those duped customers, it’s a nice thought that publicity around the case could bring to light to future visitors that admission is, in fact, only recommended. Unfortunately, you do still have to pay the actual fare at the MoMA, which is coincidentally also $25. Save up and hop over to check if Tilda Swinton, that walking Scottish enigma, is still sleeping in her glass box like a modern androgynous Snow White. If you happen to catch her on one of the remaining randomly selected six days of the year in which she will sleep, remind yourself that you will never really understand performance art.

Original Author: Alice Wang