Let Them Eat Cake

David R. Jones, The Huffington Post

In its closing days, the Bloomberg administration seems intent on making sure that the wealthy of this city preserve as many amenities as they can at the expense of working people. In a last minute deal with its major cultural institutions, the administration gives them legal permission to charge whatever fees they deem appropriate for admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the City of New York; this despite the fact that in the original authorizing laws these institutions were supposed to provide free admission to all because they were built on city land. The museums can now charge extra for special exhibitions, too.

It is not as if the Met wasn't collecting admission fees in the past -- it was. Despite the fact its $25 admission fee is only a "recommended" amount, the Met failed to make the "recommended" part clear. The word "recommended" appears in small print on signs posted at ticket sales desks. The result is that people not in the know -- New Yorkers who were not frequent museum visitors and tourists, in the main -- either paid an astounding $25 per person or chose to stay away. This deceptive practice has earned the Met two lawsuits.

But the situation is even worse. The Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the City of New York are all members of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG). The 33 members of this group are each located on city-owned property and receive significant capital and operating support from the city. In return for this support, these institutions operate as publicly-owned facilities whose mandate is to provide cultural services accessible to all New Yorkers. They receive tens of millions in direct tax subsidies from the city and its taxpayers. Unlike the rest of us, they pay no water, sewer, or property taxes to the city. They are supposed to be charities.

Some years ago, I wrote an article maintaining that our major cultural institutions were engaging in a form of Cultural Apartheid where, on any given day, their attendees did not appear to represent the diversity of the city, particularly its majority black and brown residents. At the time, I was told that this wasn't true because school groups were allowed into these institutions periodically. But I wanted working adults to also get a chance to take a day off work and visit the city's cultural treasures, particularly because many of them don't have a lot of discretionary money after paying for basic necessities.

But with this latest city action, a major step has been taken toward shutting off access to these institutions for virtually all working people in the city -- from firemen and policemen to office workers and young people generally. The Met says it has no plans to institute mandatory fees; we'll see.

Meanwhile, the city's poverty rate has now grown to 21.7 percent despite the end of the recession three years ago. That's 1.7 million New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty level. When polled, New York residents across all income groups are seriously concerned about growing income inequality. Indeed, the top fifth of the city's population earns an average of $223,000 annually, compared to $9,000 for the bottom fifth -- a ratio of 24 to 1.

But no statistic better captures the jarring income polarization defining our city than what was reported recently in Forbes magazine. According to Forbes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's net worth increased by $6 billion last year. That's $1 billion more than the collective incomes of the 1.7 million New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty line.

To use scarce city resources to increase that gap -- by turning city land, tax breaks, and subsidies for institutions that by their admission practices exclude most people who pay taxes and work hard for a living -- seems a real outrage.

It would be my fervent hope that the next mayor rolls back this new policy. If London and Washington, D.C. can provide free admissions to their major museums, the least we can do is give city residents of all income levels a chance to see the wonders contained in New York's leading museums, botanic gardens, and zoos. Meanwhile, the least these institutions can do is to clearly display their admissions prices and policies. We call on the Metropolitan Museum to commit to clear and unambiguous signage (in big letters) informing all visitors that its fee of $25 is only recommended and that any monetary contribution will be acceptable for admission. And we call on all members of the Cultural Institutions Group to reconsider their admission fees in light of their public subsidies and tax-exempt status.

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