Paying for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The MET announced that visitors who do not live in NY State will soon have to pay a $25 admission fee vs the past pay-as-you-wish fee of the past.  The articles and conversations around this change have been interesting and of course, the common theme is that the museums should be open to all.

The MET had been poorly managed for years with losses in the tens of millions.  That comes as no surprise if anyone spent some time peeking under the hood of most non-profit organizations.  They rarely run with the thought of being fiscally responsible.  They hire expensive consultants to give direction around projects instead of turning to their own staff or board members.  The mindset for many is that they can always go out and raise capital from wealthy donors to make their budget work.  Boards should hold the organization to a balanced budget and that includes being creative in the attempt to be profitable or at least to have no losses.

Museums and parks in most foreign countries are generally free.  The states/countries have a line item in their budgets to make sure that these cultural institutions are open to everyone.  There is wisdom in that, perhaps a civic duty.  Unfortunately, our public budgets can’t even afford to upgrade our transportation which is why our subway tunnels look like something out of 1940 so adding cultural institutions to the budget is not on the to-do list.  These institutions are kept running through private funding, from donors, from visitors and if they are lucky, foundations.  Also, the cultural institutions in NYC and I would assume throughout our country, make it their mission to engage the under-served communities around them to make them part of the programs they run.

When I was involved with school activities and we created the pay-as-you-wish fee, we found that the first year that we instated that rule, we made more cash.  It was the importance of embracing everyone to participate regardless of their income so the school activities could be true community events.  We were very transparent about why we had this kind of payment system.  If the MET, and others, espoused that it was private money that kept the doors open and to change the conversation, perhaps the pay-as-you-wish fee would work in their favor.  I wonder if people who travel here from around the globe even understand that their dollars are how the doors stay open.  We support the arts by belonging to almost every cultural organization in the city because I know that our donations go to the bottom line.

This change at the MET is indicative of one of my pet peeves about non-profit organizations and cultural institutions which is poor fiscal management, lack of transparency and not being able to think out of the box.  It is the people who can’t afford to walk in those doors that miss out and it is more than unfortunate, it is sad.

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    This idea of non profit always puzzled me. If there is money it is a business.What’s different is the stated goals and intentions.NY has some walls crumbling in many places (subway). I’m in to help but there needs to be leadership.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Leadership is the word.The non-profit model needs to be disrupted. People with very deep pockets are asked to sit on boards and help the organization. I get that because they are at a point where they want to give back to something they care about. Then they are asked to make a serious donation in order to sit on the board, do everything they can to move the organization forward yet do not get one ounce of acknowledgment for their efforts and they pay for these efforts. Not sure what that looks like but it has been working this way forever and it just seems like it is time to make a shift in how these organizations are governed.

      1. pointsnfigures

        They need to be run more like a business with the side car of knowing that they will have to continuously find people to support them that are interested in what they are doing. I would say there are probably way too many non-profits out there and consolidation should occur. However, there could be more museums provided they created a real service to the public-that the public would pay for. The staff of a museum doesn’t “get rich” operating it. Often, they have a passion for the project. At the same time, you have to pay for talented people to run your organization. It is up to boards to make sure the organization runs properly. Sometimes, museums over reach and build in too many fixed costs they can’t possibly cover.

        1. awaldstein

          Boards should never run organizations.That is certainly not their job in the business world.

          1. Gotham Gal

            for sure

          2. pointsnfigures

            I didn’t mean to intimate that board ran the museum. It doesn’t. I do think boards need to make sure no one over reaches

      2. Anne Libby

        The most recent thing I read about the Met’s board was that there were 101 members.

        1. Gotham Gal

          Omg. That’s insane

          1. Anne Libby

            Right? How could that ever work?

  2. lisa hickey

    Agree, agree, agree.Agree the non-profit model needs to be disrupted.Agree with @awaldstein that “if there is money it is a business”. Agree with fiscal responsibility, governance and transparency.Agree leadership is always needed.A really simple way to think about it financially might be that large donations need to be immediately applied to sustainability, while enough small donations are used to keep the lights on. Then it would almost be like an corporate structure, where day to day product or service sales are used to keep the business running, but you go out and get large investments for growth.In the case of an art museum, there has got to be ways to creatively look at revenue opportunities. Maybe people pay $1 as a baseline (instead of free), but then are still asked to pay any amount. Maybe there is a bigger push for lifetime subscriptions. Maybe, as a donor, you can buy lifetime subscriptions for a school classroom, so those specific kids will always have access to art for their entire lives. Do a better job with events, speakers, educational opportunities. Reach outside the four walls — media, podcasts, publishing. Instead of thinking “How can we get more people into the museum?”, think “How can we get more art into people’s lives?”

    1. pointsnfigures

      At the World War Two Museum we started thinking in terms of digital. Katrina almost took that museum out-and then the economic downturn of 2008 changed the way the board and staff thought about interacting with the world. If you check out the oral histories online, you can start to see evidence of that change. Tourism is also a place where museums can add a lot of value. My friend Robert Edsel leads tours in Europe where art intersects with what the Allies did to preserve it on the battlefields. Cost of a trip is not cheap, around 7-10k per person but it makes it all real. Other historians take people to battlefields and show what actually happened.

      1. lisa hickey

        Yes! Love these ideas! Thank you.

  3. pointsnfigures

    Can’t afford infrastructure because they have to pay for pensions! The Chicago Art Institute charges. Always has. I was on the board and we always charged except to WW2 vets. The thing is, there are costs to any museum. There are a lot of fixed costs. You have to pay staff and facilities maintenance. For some museums, it is important to have places so people can do research with historical objects or documents. In the case of a place like the MET, the costs are outsize because they are in NYC. Plus, they have valuable stuff on the walls that need both human and digital security, along with humidity controlled environments. If you donate a minimum to a museum, you ought to be able to see the books. Most museums will publish their statements to donors. If I thought about the cost/benefit to paying $25 to go to the MET, the benefit would outweigh the costs. I’d be getting more than I’d be giving.

  4. LE

    The high price may be a blessing in disguise. If other non-profits charge for access then a company can buy blocks of tickets at a discount and resell them. Then that company will promote the venues and perhaps make package deals with hotels offering several admissions for one low price. In the end there could end up being more attendance and interest. In order to do this the admission price being high works very well gives you more margin to discount.I read some of the comments elsewhere and note the rampant entitlement. Some people seem to think that a) it’s always been free so this is flat out wrong b) it’s arts so it should be free c) It’s a non-profit so it should be free.The mindset for many is that they can always go out and raise capital from wealthy donorsA synagogue that we were members of had this attitude. When we spoke to the Rabbi he told us about ‘people who he could call at any time that would donate money to the synagogue just like that’. They built this over the top (to me anyway) brand new building that seemed way larger than it needed to be. Next thing one of the big benefactors (a billionaire) got killed when his jet crashed on takeoff and they no longer have him to rely on. His kids names are on the building I don’t know if they are going to support it anymore like the father did.

  5. jason wright

    In the UK we have the debacle that is Carillion. It operated in the private sector, but became so addicted to contracts awarded by central government for its turnover that it forgot about the need for profit. It became a cash in the front door and cash out of the back door operation. it went bust this week with debts of GBP 1.5 billion. market theory is theory. public or private, both forms succeed or fail because of human strengths and weaknesses, which need to be managed.