The Truth Behind 'Pay What You Wish' at the Met

| 08 Nov 2019 | 02:44

Before my husband passed away in 2013 and my subsequent relocation, my family lived across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, for us, the Museum was a “park activity,” not a “destination attraction”.

So, in early 2000, when the Museum invited Fifth Avenue co-op board members to attend a meeting to learn details of a planned expansion, which included dynamiting the plaza and adding a floor, I chose to attend.

I wasn’t an “activist” – yet. But at meeting’s end I began what turned out to be a 19-year information-gathering campaign to mitigate the Museum’s expansion and overturn its “pay-what-you-wish but you-must-pay-something” – now “the amount you pay is up to you” - admissions policy, as well as similar policies at 12 other institutions on NYC park land, among them the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum.

Barriers to Culture and Learning

Though Fifth Avenue had become home, I grew up in the city’s housing projects and knew first-hand that admission fees – even if veiled as “voluntary” – were barriers. Most, if not all of us, are embarrassed to give less than what is stated in big boldface type. As then, many city adults today – including numerous elderly – are without $25 ($17 for seniors) to pay the Museum’s suggested “General Admission” fee. And for sure, adults won’t take kids with a possible $100-plus combined fee looming, even as the Museum is mandated be free to school children during all operating hours.

To be clear, because New York City contracted by 1878 lease to build and let Central Park buildings to the Museum rent-free, the 1893 State Legislature passed a law putting the onus on the Museum to provide unfettered access to New Yorkers. Yet the Museum perpetuates an admissions policy which denies our cultural legacy to our most impressionable, while in effect violating New York State law.

Parks Council Annual Reports from the late 1800s portray a special vision for the Museum, justifying the beginnings of the city’s and Museum’s public-private partnership: That it be an anchor for a park “education campus” open to all. The vision includes attention to the large city-wide immigrant population, who were “holed up in tenements” and unable to participate in the same educational offerings as the wealthy.

An Annual Billion-Dollar Windfall

Because of “packaging,” some are persuaded to view the Museum’s “pay any amount you wish” policy as an act of good will. It is not. It is a conscious campaign to take money from New Yorkers’ pockets because Museum and city leaders are silent on this seminal fact: at 2,000,000+ square feet, the Museum’s rent forgiveness now approximates One Billion Dollars annually. Yes. New Yorkers forfeit $1 billion each year for our right to enter an open and accessible Museum free of any charge.

Let’s consider the Museum’s website and signage in its Central Park buildings, which states that its admission policy is “the amount you pay is up to you” for New York State residents. Ch. 476 of the Laws of 1893, unequivocally provides New Yorkers free-of-all charge entry to an “open and accessible” Museum five days each week, with one being Sunday afternoon, and two evenings in the week, and during all operating hours for art students, copyists and schools.

Time for Action

Further, if the Museum were to operate in compliance with Ch. 476, its signage would be succinct and its bottom line over time positive, since millions of visitors from out of state would still pay admission fees. As demonstrated on my Free Admission (FA) website, while the key 19th century law has gone unenforced, the Museum’s signage reads as though an admissions fee is mandated for New Yorkers. You now know it is not.

Thanks in part to the work of the FA Initiative, in 2018 New York Supreme Court Judge Shirley W. Kornreich agreed that the Museum’s signage was “very confusing”.

FA believes the time is ripe to reach out to New York Attorney General Letitia James to insist that she undertake to enforce Ch. 476 of the Laws of 1893 with respect to the Museum and the laws for the other 12 institutions on park land.

To learn more about all of this, and to sign a petition to Attorney General James, visit my Free Admission [FA] website at