A New York museum is promised a landmark gift, the trustees are anxious for space to display all the contemporary art they’ve been buying, and a hot property for expansion is on the market—the circumstances of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to introduce an admission fee in 1873 were surprisingly like those of the present. At that time, the gift was a collection of Cypriot artifacts, the artists were named Turner and Whistler, and the real estate was an $8,000-a-year rental called the Douglas Mansion, on Fourteenth Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. In the 2010s, the gift is Leonard A. Lauder’s $1 billion trove of Cubist art, the artists are named Koons and Hirst, and the rental is the $17-million-a-year former home of the Whitney Museum, now rebranded the Met Breuer. The outcome, too, has been surprisingly similar. In the nineteenth century, the new tickets were priced at fifty cents, later lowered to twenty-five cents; this time around, the Met administration has announced, the fee will be $25 for out-of-staters—no longer a recommended donation, as the fee had been for years, but a hard barrier to entry.
The main difference between the 1870s and the present is the way the institution’s leaders have approached the decision to charge the public. In the nineteenth century, the trustees considered admission fees, in the words of one early historian, “merely a temporary expedient, contrary to their policy and wishes.”1 It was a sentiment that stayed with the Met administration for some time. By the 1890s, once the museum moved to the eastern edge of Central Park, fees were being levied only two days a week. They were then dropped altogether in January 1941, with Hitler in Paris and the lingering effects of the Great Depression still being felt around the nation. “The museum must take its part in the general mobilization of the mind, without which our democratic culture cannot survive,” the Met’s president at the time, George Blumenthal, declared.2 In 1970, as New York’s fiscal crisis began to bite, the museum turned to a novel strategy: a suggested donation of one dollar. The Art Workers Coalition protested that the charge “plays up to the shame element in our culture” and would exclude black and Puerto Rican visitors. For the Met’s leadership, this was better than the alternative.3 “We’d do anything to avoid the elitist step of a compulsory general admission fee,” the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving, explained at the time.4
It is shocking enough that an institution that entirely eliminated fees during the Great Depression, and then weathered the near-bankruptcy of its home city without requiring visitors to pony up more than a cent—temporarily closing whole galleries when guards could not be paid—would turn to mandatory admission fees during one of the longest stock market booms in American history.5 Far worse is the equanimity with which the Met’s leadership has turned to the till. Daniel Weiss, the MBA-holding art historian who in 2017 took over as the museum’s president and CEO after Thomas Campbell was pushed out as director (the museum still awaits Campbell’s replacement), has defended the fees without apology. “Over the last fifteen years, the admissions policy has effectively failed,” Weiss has said, arguing that the pay-what-you-wish approach amounted to little more than a “complicated sociological experiment” and that “excellence requires investment.”6 The fees, Weiss has also made clear, are no short-term remedy. They are meant to serve as a reliable source of future revenue.7
To Weiss’s mind, this is only fair: “Everybody who benefits from this institution is being asked to contribute to its well-being.”8 The city’s political class, too, has gone along without complaint, satisfied that the fees will be limited to non–New Yorkers. Mayor Bill de Blasio, typically one of the loudest voices denouncing contemporary inequality, responded to the proposal by saying that he is “a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” as if the typical out-of-state visitor were a billionaire.9
Once, New York and the institutions that defined the city hoped to lead the world—not only in the ambition of the institutions’ programs or the scale of their holdings, but in the quality of the city’s democratic culture. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the 1970s, the city charted an independent path. New York was at the forefront of social democratic politics in the United States. Indeed, by the 1960s, the city offered such a bounty of services and cultural programs that it put into question the old saw about Americans lagging behind their European peers in social provision. New York ran twenty-four of its own hospitals and dozens of local clinics, while its health department conducted original scientific research. The city opened free day care centers for low-income families. It also developed and funded a system of colleges, all without tuition, and built a research library, completely open to the public, whose only peers were the Library of Congress, the British Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale. The subway, the largest in the world, cost fifteen cents a ride, the equivalent of just over a dollar today. And then there were the arts: the city ran three public radio stations and two public television stations, and the publicly owned Center of Music and Drama offered inexpensive tickets for theater, opera, symphony, and ballet.10 As late as 1970, not one of the cultural institutions housed in city-owned facilities—the Met, the American Museum of Natural History, the Botanical Garden, the Museum of the City of New York—charged anyone for admission, including tourists, with the lonely exception of the Bronx Zoo.11
Over the years, as subway fares rose, local hospitals were renovated as condos, inexpensive cultural institutions like City Opera shuttered for lack of funds, and the public library sent much of its historic collection to New Jersey for storage, free admission at the Met remained one of the few enduring legacies of this great social democratic era. It is easy enough to pick apart the rationale behind the policy’s curtailment. The mandatory fee is “in line” with that at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Times editorial board noted in a tepid endorsement.12 “When you look at the landscape of attraction pricing, the Met is an incredible value at $25,” the head of the city’s tourism agency said,13 as if an institution that previously saw itself at the core of “the general mobilization of the mind” were comparable to mere attractions like the Spy “Museum” or the “Museum” of Sex in Midtown. Similarly, the majority leader of the City Council observed, “when I go to Paris and Madrid and the Pergamon in Berlin, I expect to pay”14—a list carefully constructed to leave off places where many of the largest museums offer free admission, at least to permanent collection galleries, whether London, Beijing, or Washington, D.C. It’s no accident that those cities are national capitals, and the Met’s current president has used the lack of federal backing for the museum to argue that the institution is “the only major art museum in the world” that doesn’t charge a mandatory admission fee or rely on “significant government funding.”15 Yet this claim gives no thought as to why the Met instituted free admission in the first place, despite never having received substantial federal subsidies, or why the museum in the 1970s did everything it could to avoid imposing mandatory fees, turning in desperation instead to “suggested” donations—a practice that, at the time, was as embarrassing for the institution as it was for its patrons.
In the 1970s, when the Ford Administration and the financial community made New York one of the first object lessons in what would become neoliberal politics, it was precisely the city’s “free or ‘discount’ public services,” in the words of one banker who oversaw the budget, that first had to go.16 Even if introducing tuition at the city’s colleges, for instance, hardly did anything to fill the gaping budget hole, such “overkill” was deemed necessary to create the proper “shock impact” and show that the city had changed for good.17 This is the deep historical backdrop against which the Met’s decision to drop voluntary admission must be seen—part of the long march through the institutions, led since the 1970s by men like David Koch (who also happens to be a Met trustee), by which public goods have been further privatized, means-tested, and priced, and institutions that open their doors free of charge, whether the Met or Cooper Union or the public library, come to seem not premonitions of a democratic world to come but relics of a bygone age.
The surprise may not be that the Met has turned to mandatory fees but that pay-what-you-wish endured for so long. That the old system survived to 2018 is testament above all to the astonishing steadfastness of the Met’s previous director, Philippe de Montebello, who took up the post in 1977 and retired only in 2008. This is not to suggest that the admissions policy held any special place in de Montebello’s heart: while the admission policy change has been widely decried in the press and while the former director has spoken critically about the Met’s recent institutional struggles, he has not, to my knowledge, said a word about the introduction of mandatory fees. But the speed with which the museum’s leadership has turned to charging out-of-state visitors reveals how much the persistence of the pay-what-you-wish policy depended on the absence of financial difficulties of even modest severity in recent decades.
Voluntary admission may have been treasured by the Met’s patrons, but it is clear from the administration’s lack of regret at the new policy’s announcement that it had become, for the leadership, more like a vestigial organ, as easily excised as an appendix. This was, after all, a decision made not in dire circumstances but at the first signs of trouble, the result of a self-imposed and in many ways manufactured crisis. After weathering de Montebello’s departure and the 2008 financial meltdown, the Met’s new administration, led by Campbell, embarked on a series of elective projects. The first was a charmless renovation of the museum’s plaza (named after Koch), at a cost of $65 million. The second was the renovation and eight-year rental of the Breuer building, which cost more than $20 million to operate last year. Although the venue has hosted some notable exhibitions, it has also been aptly dubbed “the world’s most glorified swing space.”18 Next there was the ramp-up of the digital department to as many as seventy-five staff members, reportedly at a cost of up to $20 million per year, including one individual with whom Campbell allegedly conducted an affair, and who is reported to have used this relationship to create a “fiefdom with its own (wasteful) budget.”19 Then there was the expansion of the modern and contemporary staff, long the poor stepchild at the Met, to become the institution’s largest curatorial department, with twenty-nine members.20 And to top the list off, there was the museum’s widely mocked $3 million rebranding campaign.21 This is not to mention the plan to renovate the museum’s modern and contemporary wing (originally budgeted at $600 million), a project that was pushed by the museum’s trustees, but that the board has reportedly been unwilling to fund. Despite an extensive campaign, Campbell was able to secure only two $10 million pledges according to an exposé in Vanity Fair.22 (Disputing this account, a spokesperson for the Met told Art in America that fundraising has not yet begun in earnest.) Meanwhile, the administration found itself obliged to take out a $250-million loan for infrastructure improvements, at a cost of $8.5 million per annum, much of it to pay for the replacement of the main building’s vintage skylights, a project no donors, apparently, wanted their names on.23
Thus the board of trustees, whose combined net worth Vanity Fair estimates to be in excess of $500 billion and whose roster includes leaders in contemporary finance (John Paulson, Richard Chilton, J. Tomilson Hill, Lulu Wang), business (Koch, Alejandro Santo Domingo), law (Candace Beinecke), and real estate (Daniel Brodsky), as well as a smattering of cultural luminaries (Anna Wintour, Andrew Solomon), pushed the institution for which it is responsible onto an unsustainable path. Many of these changes occurred under the banner of democracy and public demand—the Met, Campbell noted in an exit interview, had in the past been “a bit elitist,” while, in Campbell’s telling circumlocution, there was “a clear perception on the part of the board that our audience desired for the museum to become more engaged with Modern and contemporary art.”24 All that they did, the trustees appear to have told themselves, was on behalf of a broad public, one that existed largely in their own heads. Once the board’s ambitions threw the institution into structural deficit, they were disinclined to throw in the cash merely to return the museum to a stable financial state. Instead, the trustees, sitting on billions amid vast economic inequality, have unapologetically turned to the public to fill an economic gap they themselves created.
It is hoped that the new fees will bring in an additional $8 million to $11 million annually.25 At this rate, some critics point out, the $65 million investment in the museum’s sterile new plaza could have funded free admission for almost a decade.26 A better measure might be the endowment necessary to replace such a funding stream. At a typical institutional spending rate of 5.25 percent annually, it would, by my calculation, take an additional endowment of around $152 million to produce a funding stream of $8 million.27 This is a lot of money. It’s also around the same amount the museum will have spent renovating and operating the Breuer facility for the length of its current eight-year lease. But whereas the money for the Breuer, and the exhibitions that take place there, will have to be spent, those same donations could have funded nonmandatory admission fees to the Met, for all visitors, forever. Even to undertake this calculus is, moreover, to grant the assumption that past donors to the Met’s $3 billion endowment, around half of which is unrestricted, did not intend for their gifts to keep the doors of the museum open to all.28
The Met was not born a democratic institution, but it became one. Founded in 1870 by a wealthy upper class fearful of the encroachment of urbanization and industrialization, the museum became democratized not with the elimination of admission fees—a policy long taken for granted, and inscribed in the museum’s early leases with the city—but with the opening of its doors on Sundays. In the nineteenth century, most working people put in six-day weeks; Sunday was the only time available for entertainment, whether in the park, at the library, on the beach, or at the museum. Sunday openings were nonetheless opposed by the board of trustees, who were fearful of the masses (as well as of the anger of their Presbyterian god). When in 1891 the museum was finally opened on Sundays, more than 900,000 visitors came in the first year—many of them free of charge.29 This change, however, was not the result of the trustees’ devotion to the public interest, but a product of democratic movements. More than 10,000 New Yorkers had signed a petition demanding Sunday hours, and almost every local labor union had joined in; the state legislature, elected in a period when more citizens participated in politics than at any other time in American history, had threatened to intervene as well. “They think the Museum is a public institution, in the management of which the public has a voice,” one trustee responded in anger. And the public, as time proved, was right.30
When the Met contemplated introducing mandatory fees again in 1970, another activist group, the Art Workers Coalition, was loudly demanding free admission at all the city’s museums, and had just convinced MoMA to waive its fee for one day each week.31 Even the Met’s pay-what-you-wish policy was greeted with fear about what it might mean in the future. As one city councillor noted, “A penny today may be a dollar tomorrow.”32 It is hard to imagine a coalition of out-of-towners organizing to oppose the Met’s new fees. But New Yorkers should know better than to trust that what has come for the tourists won’t be coming for them soon, too.
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