The Worrisome Decision to Increase the Admission Price to the Met Museum
By Guest Contributor Jean-Michel Tobelem
The Metropolitan Museum of New York's surreptitious decision to raise its admission price from $25 to $30 (and from $12 to $17 for students, with admission charged for children over 12) manifests its ethical, moral and intellectual decline.
This decision was made under the influence of Mr. Daniel Weiss, who was a stranger to the museum world before becoming the Met's president (he has announced his departure for 2023) and with the approval of the board of trustees.
By this action, whatever the rhetoric employed, the Met seems to abdicate any claim to be truly educational, beyond those audiences already used to visiting museums because of their level of education, their family environment or their social origin.
This increase also signals a general increase in museum prices, starting with MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection and the Natural History Museum in New York, where admission is currently set at 25 dollars.
However, as we have pointed out on several occasions over the years, the most renowned museums have the capacity to increase their prices without damaging the level of attendance, because they live off their reputation: visitors consider them as must-see attractions. It is therefore an administrative decision that does not reflect any managerial competence on the part of those in charge.
Moreover, as we have previously analyzed, in such conditions the visit becomes something exceptional and repeated visits are not facilitated, contrary to the discourse of museum professionals, which officially consists in encouraging visitors to acquire maximum familiarity with the collections, the exhibitions and the programs.
The opposite results then occurs: the visitor then legitimately seeks to “make the most” of a very expensive admission ticket by seeing as much as possible in as little time as possible; or else by limiting themselves to a visit to the institution's icons (as is unfortunately the case at the Louvre for the majority of first-time visitors).
In this logic, less renowned institutions feel entitled to increase their prices in turn, which has fueled a worrisome increase in prices worldwide in recent years, masked by an increase in attendance due essentially – for the most important museum and heritage institutions – to an increase in international tourist flows.
This is a phenomenon which is at least partly independent of museums and monuments (because they do not control these flows), but from which they benefit primarily because we are witnessing a concentration of flows on a global scale. The large sites are more and more frequented while the smaller ones – far from any trickle-down effect – are even more neglected: the most powerful institutions get richer while the less powerful ones get weaker.
At the same time, without prejudging a cause-and-effect relationship between price increases and declining attendance, we can only observe a stagnation, but more often a decline, in the attendance of the least advantaged social categories, as attested to both in the United States and in the European Union.
In fact, the steady increase in attendance can mask a well-documented crowding-out effect. However, contrary to a discourse not exempt from a certain form of hypocrisy of many museum managers, it is not true to affirm that only those who are interested in the contents of the museum will come (even if the price is very high) and that those who are not interested will not come (even if the price is low).
This ignores the fact that between those who are very motivated (and have adequate financial means) and those who are very far from the museum offer, there is a vast group of individuals who are ready to be convinced by a cultural or artistic proposal of quality, provided that it remains financially accessible.
The Met's decision unfortunately echoes the somewhat cynical statement of MoMA director Glenn Lowry, who represents the perfect embodiment of the corporate vision of museums: “We're in a country where there is a cost for culture.”
He thus becomes the worthy representative of a fringe of curators who put themselves at the service of powerful administrators who endow them with generous financial rewards, rather than at the service of the citizens on whose funding the museum's existence ultimately rests; and this by means of tax deductions and tax exemptions that are borne by all citizens.
While not a surprise to informed observers and not based on any serious economic considerations, this decision by the Met therefore appears shocking for five reasons:
It is in contradiction with any perspective of sociological widening of the visitors' profile (knowing that digital strategies are not able to counteract this trend).
It ignores the fact that admission fees represent a modest portion of the museum's revenue (about 17%, which means that more than 80% of the budget is not based on ticket revenue).
It does not take into account the existence of a significant financial contribution from the City and State of New York to the Met's annual budget.
It does not take into account the magnitude of domestic and international tourist flows (with more than 7 million annual visitors to the Met before the crisis), which will increase again once the Covid-19 epidemic is under control (even if it does not disappear).
Finally, it does not take into account the importance of donations and the colossal amount of its endowment (more than 3.5 billion dollars).
The predictable consequence is an ever more marked “elitization” of the museum and the ever more pronounced exclusion of the most modest categories of the population: the MET does not take the trouble to measure the distribution of attendance by social or income category; nor, of course, does it set numerical objectives in this area; which – as with many other institutions in the world – casts serious doubts on a sincere commitment to the democratization of access to the museum, in contradiction with the DEAI principles (diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion).
It is therefore high time that the Met finally become the civic institution it claims to be and could become if it moved away from its plutocratic ethos (manifested by the composition of its board of trustees) and became more concerned with its civic role, in the service of the general interest.
In any case, with the Louvre weakened by its ever-increasing commercialization, the British Museum unable to return the Parthenon Elgin marbles, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg now out of the picture, the place of leadership of museums on an international scale is up for grabs. Who will seize the challenge?
[First published on LinkedIn, July 5, 2022.]