2017-04-26 18:11:03
Mayor de Blasio Endorses an Entrance Fee at the Met Museum

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday endorsed having the Metropolitan Museum of Art charge admission for visitors from outside New York City, a controversial idea given that the Met is a taxpayer-supported institution that was free for a century and now has only a “suggested” entrance fee that many don’t pay.

The museum, grappling with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, has been quietly talking to city officials for a year about a mandatory fee for nonresidents. But thorny questions still must be resolved, like how to verify that visitors are not New Yorkers, whether it is fair to charge people who work in the city or are from the suburbs and what amount would be required.

The move could also have unintended consequences for municipal financing of the museum, for its reputation as a public institution, for tourism and even for Mr. de Blasio’s re-election campaign.

At a news conference, Mr. de Blasio said he thought it would be “fair” to impose a fee if it specifically affected “non-city residents.”

“I’m a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” he said.

Yet the possibility of culling visitors into “paying” and “nonpaying” lines — and even of making the Met free for city residents but not for state residents — risks alienating tourists and New Yorkers alike, especially if people see the fee as a way for the Met to solve financial and governance missteps that have led to a budget deficit of about $15 million. Met leaders have resorted to cost-cutting moves, including trimming staff and reducing the number of annual exhibitions to about 40, from nearly 60; a fee would establish the kind of large and consistent revenue stream that private museums already enjoy.

Unlike several Manhattan museums that charge admission, the Met is considered a public museum: New York City owns its building and also gives the museum $26 million a year — the largest amount that the city provides to an arts institution. Still, the city’s appropriation to the Met covers just about 8 percent of the museum’s $332 million annual operating costs.

The Met’s current “suggested” adult admissions fee, $25, generated about $39 million in the fiscal year 2016, or 13 percent of the museum’s overall revenue. A mandatory fee would be likely to generate tens of millions of dollars more a year, providing a much-needed shot in the arm.

Should the Met earn these additional millions, the city might become more inclined to shift public money to other arts groups, a prospect that city officials are now considering as part of a new Cultural Plan, to be released soon. The city may view the Met’s new income as a replacement for its public dollars, which could be risky if admission fees prove less reliable than annual city funding.

But the mayor said Wednesday that an admission fee would not necessarily jeopardize city support.

“I don’t think we have an assumption about city funding,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It’s about them being able to sustain their operations long term and would actually mean they wouldn’t need additional city funding, in theory. But no, the real issue is just to allow them to defray some of their costs in a way that’s fair to city residents.”

The Met board and the mayor will both have to agree on an admissions fee and navigate the symbolic shoals of making a taxpayer-supported institution no longer free to all.

“Should we receive a formal proposal, we will consider it,” Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said before the mayor made his comments.

The discussions about an admissions fee come at a precarious time for the Met. Leaders of the museum, the nation’s largest. The Met’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, resigned under pressure in February, and the board of trustees has been criticized for poor oversight.

Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and its acting chief executive, acknowledged this week that the museum is “looking at everything to bridge our budget deficit, including the pricing structure we have with the city, which is something we have done throughout our history.”

Mr. Weiss issued a statement on Wednesday after the mayor endorsed the fee idea for nonresidents.

“We are very pleased to be working with Mayor de Blasio and his team,” Mr. Weiss said. “This is a strong partnership. They want what’s best for the city and the museum, as do we. We look forward to working with the mayor in the months and years ahead.”

The Met’s discussions with the city — which people inside the museum and city government recently confirmed to The Times — had been confidential, since the issue is considered so sensitive. There is great importance attached to the idea of the city’s pre-eminent museum remaining free to enter, even though the Met has for more than four decades had a suggested admission fee. The 1893 law providing state support to the museum mandated that its collections “shall be kept open and accessible to the public free of all charge throughout the year.”

There are models for admissions fees at public museums: Entry to the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, for example, is free to residents of the European Union younger than 26; others have to pay 15 euros, or about $16. Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum charge $25 for adults, and the Whitney Museum of American Art $22.

“I’m not opposed to museums and cultural institutions charging out-of-city residents,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the majority leader of the City Council and the chairman of its Cultural Affairs Committee, who said he was unaware of the Met talks. “When I go to Paris and Madrid and the Pergamon in Berlin, I expect to pay.”

Currently, 63 percent of the Met’s seven million annual visitors come from outside New York State. Met leaders and city officials are still reckoning with how a fee might change the visiting habits of those tourists, as well as other questions: What about people who commute every day into the city for work and consider themselves New Yorkers? And how would residency be established at the front desk?

Moreover, the political optics of instituting an admissions fee could impact Mayor de Blasio’s re-election campaign, especially if the museum is seen as gouging tourists or reversing a historic principle of making a cultural institution free to the public.

“This risks being a classic case of ‘penny wise and pound foolish,’” said Mark Green, the former New York City public advocate. “Revenue is good, but so is our reputation of being a tourist-welcoming city.”

The talks between the Met and the city are taking place as the de Blasio administration prepares in the next couple of weeks to release a draft report of the city’s first Cultural Plan, which would manage and organize the city’s resources for arts groups. A 2016 law passed by the City Council requires the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to present the plan to the council by July 1.

In developing the plan, called Create NYC, Cultural Affairs — together with the nonprofit Hester Street Collaborative as a consultant — has sought guidance on what residents want and need from arts organizations and has studied the plans of other cities like Boston and Chicago.

This process has included a re-evaluation of the financing formula that for years has dictated how much each of the 33 organizations on city-owned land that make up the Cultural Institutions Group receive to help cover basic costs like security, maintenance and energy. The city also provides funding for building projects from a separate budget.

Given Mayor de Blasio’s focus on equal access, many arts groups are concerned that the new cultural plan will markedly redistribute the city’s $181.2 million arts budget, directing somewhat less to large institutions like the Met and more to smaller institutions.

A change in the Met’s admissions policy could also have an impact on tourism, which both museum and city officials are taking into account.

Christopher Heywood, a spokesman for NYC & Company, the city’s tourism organization, said, “We don’t have enough information on this at this point to make a relevant comment.”

Complicating matters, the Met was the subject of a legal challenge to its admissions policy, a case that was settled only last year. Two lawsuits asserted that the wording on the signs at the museum’s admissions desks was deceptive and pressured visitors to pay $25 even though, under the museum’s policy, they could pay whatever they wished.

Under the legal settlement, which awaits final court approval, the Met agreed to 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.”

In addition to making cuts, the Met has been trying to build revenue — in part by improving its retail shops, which were formerly losing money. The prospect of charging admission could represent a significant infusion of income when the museum needs it most.

“Whatever we do is going to be collaborative and mutually supportive,” Mr. Weiss said. “All we’re doing is exploring.”