End Museum Admission Fees: Stop Cultural Elitism

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York City, but nowhere is the chasm more vividly on display than in the crowds that visit the city’s preeminent museums.   It’s a sad truth that visitors tend to be well to do and mostly white because New York City’s poor and working-class families of color simply cannot afford the price of admission.

The scene, reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, is the never-intended result of entry fees that have transformed publically-funded institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Botanical Gardens, Bronx Zoo and NY Aquarium into revenue-generating tourist attractions.  The entry fees have slammed the door to low-income people of color, further driving a wedge between New York City’s rich and poor.

Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for taking the unusual step of linking $300 million in funding for NYC’s cultural groups to the diversity of their leadership and staff.  A Cultural Affairs Department study last year found that 67 percent of city residents identify as members of minority groups, yet only 38 percent of employees at cultural organizations belong to those groups.

The initiative is laudable because it puts pressure on the cultural institutions to add diversity to their staffs and boards which are currently bastions of white male power brokers from Wall Street and real estate.  Cultural organizations chafe at the policy, which is a major reversal from de Blasio’s position two years ago. They balk because placing conditions on the subsidies represents the first shot in political fight over nothing less than the future of public accommodation to New York City museums.

However, the mayor’s policy, called Create NYC, doesn’t go far enough.  Right now, what’s missing from the Create NYC document is adequate consideration of an undeniable truth: one-fifth of New York City’s population lives in poverty and more than one-third are made up of low-income families.  They simply can’t afford to visit our world-class museums.  They are priced out of the cultural market and don’t feel welcomed.

Something must be done about this.

Admission to major NYC museums was free for a century, but they have slowly instituted admission fees.  Sure, many offer free entry or pay-what-you-wish options for a select day of the month or evening hours every week. But that’s simply window dressing – availability of the discounts is restrictive and signage is worded in a way that is downright misleading.   For instance, the fee at The Met was challenged in two lawsuits that alleged the wording on the signs at the museum’s admissions desks as deceptive and pressured visitors to pay $25 even though, under the museum’s policy, they could pay whatever they wished.

In a settlement of the Met lawsuits, which is pending final court approval, the museum agreed to more directly tell visitors on its signage and websites that “the amount you pay is up to you” and to describe the $25 full-admission charge as “suggested” instead of “recommended.” If approved, this would be a good development for New Yorkers, although it may not help visitors from out of town.  The Met has filed a proposal with the City to charge them mandatory admission.  The City is reviewing the proposal.

The Met’s proposal is not a new idea.  But while the idea of advantaging New York City residents is a good one, we can go further.  Harvard University provides reduced-price entry to its museums to people who live in Massachusetts, with very low-priced tickets available to Massachusetts residents who receive public benefits.  Why not institute this idea for low-income New Yorkers at places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, all of which now charge $25 for adults – a fee that makes a museum visit for an individual with limited income – let alone a family – totally out of reach?

Current New York City museum fees promote a separation – a social and economic segregation - that is unhealthy for the well-being of the city.  But this situation should not be perpetuated any longer.  Major New York cultural institutions are publicly funded, primarily through tax-deductible contributions and city, state, and federal tax dollars.  They pay no property taxes.  There is additional leverage here.  The city’s Cultural Institutions Group operates 33 organizations on city-owned land which receive public money to cover basic costs like security, maintenance and energy in exchange for providing services that are meant to be accessible to the public.  This access should not come at an admissions price tens of thousands of New Yorkers just can’t afford.

Our cultural institutions belong to everyone.  We can’t let them continue to work as engines perpetuating income inequality. 

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