Last Thursday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its first new admissions policy in decades, which charges out-of-towners full price while New York residents continue to pay what they wish. Some critics have been very vocal about their belief that museums should be free — and who can argue with that sentiment, even though it’s important to note that the Met Museum has never been free (visitors currently have to pay something, even if it is only a penny).
The realities of museums may been complicated, but it was already well-known that the museum was at risk of having a $40 million deficit. Sure, New York state residents and students from Connecticut and New Jersey will continue to enjoy the pay-what-you-wish policy, but is that enough? It certainly feels like a giant shift is taking place at an institution that is commonly referred to as one of the greatest museums in the world.
We spoke to Met Museum President and CEO Daniel H. Weiss about the new policy and how it fits with the museum’s larger vision.
The interview has been edited for clarity,
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Hrag Vartanian: Do you think museums should be free? Should that be a goal, or something to strive for?
DHW: Yeah. I think there’s no question, that it’s in society’s interest, for all of our interest, for people to have as ready access as possible, to art and culture. That it enriches our lives, it elevates our empathy, it allows for more meaningful and productive day-to-day life, if we can connect to the kinds of work that people at the Met do. So ideally, access matters a lot.
HV: Do you think the Met should strive to be free?
DHW: Well, I think, the reason I’m not answering your question directly, is … let me think out loud with you for a second.
DHW: I think what I said is the most important thing. That we should strive to make the institution accessible. If that means that it would be possible for us to be free, that would the best possible solution. Except, that it is never free. I don’t think the question is “Should it be free?” the question is “Who should pay?” Because if it’s free, then who’s paying? The Federal Government?
DHW: There are always questions associated with “What does an institution do?” or “How does it function?” depending upon who’s paying. So, what I am in favor of is what I would call a model of co-investment. Where everyone who benefits, directly or indirectly from the work of this institution, has an obligation to the degree that they can, to pay something. That was the beauty of the ‘pay-as-you-wish’ policy. Because it was the perfect realization of that spirit.
People who could pay a lot, could pay a lot. People who can’t, could come anyway, and pay a little. But if everyone pays — the city, the Federal Government, philanthropic support, the public — if everybody paid, if we had this model of co-investment, then we’re not accountable in any excessive way to any particular influence.
DHW: Which allows us to protect our creative integrity and freedom of expression. The problem is regrettably that the pay-as-you-wish model no longer works. 40 years ago, in 1970, when the pay-as-you-wish model was put in place the museum was getting about 25% of its funding from the City of New York, today we’re getting about 9% of our funding from the City. So the City has in effect backed off on its level of commitment to the museum over the last 50 years. And the pay-as-you-wish policy for about 40 of those 50 years, seemed to work pretty well.
But for various reasons, over the past 10 or 12 years, the pay-as-you-wish policy has failed. It has declined by 71% in the amount people pay. So the question then is who’s responsibility is that? It’s a social contract that no longer works.
HV: In a document on the new admission policy, which was published under your name, there’s a mention that in the past 8 years alone visitors have increased by almost 40%. So, I think, for a lot of people there is a disconnect between, how there are so many more visitors, but admissions are still a problem. How would you respond to people who see a disconnect with those figures?
DHW: During the last period of time, we’re talking about, let’s just say, the last 5 years we’ve seen visitation increase dramatically. At the same time, the amount of money people are paying, has decreased dramatically. So that during the last 5 years, we’ve seen no growth in revenue. Our costs have grown, because, you know, we have to pay people, and be a functioning entity in the economy. But we’ve had no growth in revenue.
So the increased numbers of visitors, have offset the reduction of paying, but we’ve made no progress.
HV: Got it. And, so what is the projection? Because paid admission represents only 15% of overall revenue. What percentage are you hoping for?
DHW: We’re seeking a modest increase in the amount the public contributes to our budget. We are imagining, we are planning, that we’ll go from 14% of our budget, to about 16, or 17%. That will increase our revenues by somewhere from 6 and 11 million dollars. We don’t want to burden the public with too much of this responsibility, as we don’t think that’s appropriate either. We’re just looking to get the balance right.
HV: How do you respond to those who have been bringing up the Koch Plaza in front of the Met Museum and the $65 million that was donated to make that possible. How do you respond to that and do you think that money could’ve helped to relieve a little bit of this burden?
DHW: I think, that that argument is actually quite specious. And I’ll tell you why. First of all, the Metropolitan Museum is already more actively supported by donors than any other cultural institution in the United States. 75% of our budget is paid for by gifts from donors. Either directly, today, or through the endowments that we’ve built up, one gift at a time, from our donors.
Moreover, 100% of our art collection has been built by donors. This institution was not built on a royal collection, like the Louvre was, for example. Or on imperial collections, like the British Museum. It was built one gift at a time, from the citizens around us.
So the donors already carry the vast majority of the burden of co-investment in this institution. Now let’s turn to David Koch. He was approached as a member of our donor community, [because] we actually had a plaza that needed to be renovated, for various logistical infrastructure reasons. The plaza had to be renovated, and we asked him to pay for it. So he did. And, as you know, there are always many needs institutions have, that we asked donors to pay for. We didn’t ask him to offset an admissions policy, that was failing, because the public was no longer contributing to it. I’m not sure, morally even, that’s an appropriate question to ask him.
HV: So how about in terms of the sensitivity people have toward this idea of carding? Because there have been statistics that show that people who do not carry ID are disproportionately people of color. Of course, undocumented immigrants are impacted too. And I’m just wondering, whether that’s a sensitivity for the museum, and how the museum plans to deal with that criticism?
DHW: Well, that scenario is a great sensitivity. I wouldn’t call it a criticism, I would call it a concern.
DHW: And if we’re gonna do this, how do we make sure we do it, so we don’t do harm to the issue around people’s rights to privacy, the sense of acceptability that we want people to have about this museum? So let’s say, for instance you’re an undocumented member of the community. Are you gonna feel like you’re welcome at the Met?
Well, we are working really hard to address that issue in the following ways. First of all, you can have an IDNYC card, and when we begin this policy, for several weeks, you will be able to come in and get an IDNYC card, which allows you to have access to any number of cultural institutions and other kinds of places in New York.
HV: So, there will actually be a place in the museum where you can go and get a card?
DHW: Yes, that’s correct.
HV: And how long will that last?
DHW: In March for 2-3 weeks, when the policy starts.
So, the idea there is, again, we want to encourage people to come. And then, as we have said, we’re going to be very flexible about how people demonstrate residency. And we’re not recording any of that information. We’re not going to write down people’s ID. We’re just going to consult it, in order to make sure that they live in New York, and then we’re gonna give them an admissions ticket. It’s done successfully in other cities around the country.
HV: According to the information provided by the Met, a current bill or bank statements with a New York State address can be used to prove residency. Does that mean that picture ID won’t be required?
DHW: Correct. We actually included a library card, and that does not have picture ID.
HV: Okay. Now how about in terms of those who view this as part of a larger push towards the privatization of public resources and the commodification of art? Some people are saying “Well, this is just another way to make it a little bit more exclusionary.” How does that factor into this thinking?
DHW: So again, I think, the practical problem before us is how do we keep this community resource working for everyone? And that involves the commitment from everyone to its well-being. So, we have to rely more heavily on our donors, doesn’t that make us more exclusionary, rather than less exclusionary? All we’re asking, is for all the members of our society to participate in the well-being of the institution, to help the well-being of the institution function. So I think in the end, that’s not exclusionary, it’s actually the opposite. And the practical question of what does it take to support an organization that doesn’t get federal funds?
The practical question is “Who’s supposed to pay?” If the public doesn’t wish to pay, who should pay?
HV: You had mentioned, 9–10% is currently coming from the city. Are there also state funds?
DHW: We get capital funding support from the state from time to time, but the vast majority of the operating support comes from the city.
HV: So 9% is the limit of that.
HV: In terms of the actual operating budget, which is over 300 million dollar budget, we’re talking about roughly a few million dollars in the admissions. Are there any plans to create some sort of endowment in the future, to make this free?
DHW: Well, we thought very carefully about this issue for a long time. And we are building endowments all the time, to support our operations. The average visitor to this museum costs us about $42 dollars.
So even if they paid $25 dollars, their visit is subsidized.
DHW: So if we were building endowments to make the institution free, and just to off-set the revenue we’re talking about, if we were to just do that, we’re talking about $215 million dollars in endowments. And, again, I’m not sure, what is the purpose of that? Why is it unreasonable to ask people who otherwise aren’t paying, to help the institution to run? Because their government is not paying for us. The amount of money we are getting from the City is rather modest and we are protecting the pay-as-you-wish policy for New Yorkers for that reason. But if you live elsewhere in the country, how can the Metropolitan be free to them, when nobody’s paying for it? Not the government, not the public, why is that a burden, that no other cultural institution in the United States is being asked to bear? You pay $25 to go to the Museum of Modern Art, or the Whitney, or Guggenheim, but not the Met.
HV: And what kind of studies or statistic did the Met look at in order to come to this decision?
DHW: We did a lot of internal analysis and modeling, which let us understand what we think will happen under various kinds of policy change scenarios … We also looked in other institutions that have been through this. We’re not the only museum that has changed its policy. So we look at how it went with the Art Institute of Chicago and other places that have been involved in this sort of work, to try to learn from their experience. And collectively, doing that sort of analytical work and comparative evaluation, and careful discussion around what it means to off-set our admission, we then formulated a policy.
And a lot of things change, when this policy changes. And we want to make sure that we anticipate that as much as we possibly can.
HV: A lot of New Yorkers are clearly very passionate about this news and a lot of people have very strong opinions. What have you been hearing? I’m wondering, if there’s anything you’ve heard so far that the institution is currently discussing and perhaps incorporating into their plans?
DHW: First of all, the most important take-away from this has been, and I can’t say I’m fully surprised, the degree to which people care about this institution deeply, it is why they’re responding in various ways.
That’s why the media has taken the interest in it, that they have. Because the Met matters. It matters to the community, and it matters to the world. And so I take that very, very seriously and would never make a policy decision lightly, because of that. That said, I was struck by the fact, there are two kinds of arguments. There are rational arguments, based on the evidence and the data. Which suggests, if a museum is an institution we love, that is extraordinary, how do we pay for it? Who pays for it? Someone has to. So that’s one argument.
The other argument, which resonates less with me, is the idealistic aspiration, that the institution should be free to everybody. I agree, it would be great, if it were free to everybody. But we have a $305 million dollar budget, that has to be met. People have to be paid, exhibitions have to be paid for, all the great things, this institution does, requires investment. And realistically, someone has to worry about that.
So, I think, both sets of issues, both sets of discussion are worth having. But I would be very happy, if both parties were listening to the other a little bit more.
HV: Got it. And how much of the endowment is actually focused on operations?
DHW: We have our overall endowment is about $3 billion dollars. And various parts of it are restricted in various ways. To acquisitions, or to fellowship programs, or to other kinds of exhibitions, or whatever. Unrestricted, operating is less than $1 billion, but I don’t remember the exact number.
HV: In terms of how that policy is going to be introduced to the public on March 1st, are there any special arrangements for that? Other than, of course, the IDNYC card that we already discussed. But I’m wondering how the museum is going to deal with that transition, because I imagine there’s going to be a lot of people showing up at the door not knowing about the policy.
DHW: Well, that’s true. We’re doing a great deal of operational planning, so that, when we open the doors on March 1st, we’ll be ready to implement the policy change seamlessly. And our hope is that the public doesn’t really experience any change. That the lines work smoothly, that everything is functioning as it should. We are anticipating all kinds of issues and all kinds of contingency. We need signage that allows people to know what’s happening, and where they can go to get their tickets, we’ll do all of that. We’re training 2,000 members of our staff for the exchange, to make sure, that they can address questions and operate under the new admissions policy as of March 1st.
So we are doing all of that work ahead of time, so that it is rather seamless. But to your point, the vast majority of people, who visit the museum from out of town, don’t know the admissions policy anyway. They just come in and they’ll do what they’re asked to do. So they would pay if there was a mandatory fee, just like at the Museum of Modern Art or at the Guggenheim, they’ll just pay it. And they go on having the experience that they’re gonna have.
HV: I’m wondering if there’s going to be other kinds of announcement like this in the pipeline, because everyone knows that there’s a budget shortfall at the museum. Are there any other plans in the works to help remedy that situation? Or is this the worst news we can expect?
DHW: We’re doing all kinds of things to help keep the institution strong. If you look at our programming this year, I think it’s fair to say that no one can disagree that the institution is thriving. And our goal is to continue to do that. At the same time, we’re being thoughtful about managing our budget and our financial plan, so that we can continue to thrive, but most of the other things we’re doing will be less visible to the public. In this case, it’s visible to the public, because we’re asking the public to do something differently.
HV: One final question. A lot of people are particularly sensitive about this topic, because of the current political climate. People see it as a classist mentality since it may restrict certain demographics or groups from admission. So I’m wondering, is the Met going to do anything to address that for those who are concerned?
DHW: We thought about this issue a great deal. We’re very mindful of wanting to send the signal, as I mentioned earlier, that people are welcome here and that this museum is for everyone. So our programming continues to be quite diverse and rich. We have 30,000 special events a year at the Met. Think about that for a moment.
Anything from major exhibitions to tours. And lectures and musicals, live art exhibitions, and what have you. There’s something for everyone at the Met. At the same time, we are putting in place a very thoughtful plan, to communicate to people all over the city, that they’re welcome here, we want them to come, and we hope that we can make sure that they understand that.
HV: So is there anything you’d like to add?
DHW: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion, and I would say, once again, that I think it’s very important for people to understand, that we must balance the ideological aspirations people have for cultural institutions, with the reality associated with investing in excellence. And we’re hoping to find that balance with this policy change.
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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this interview stated that the museum does not receive operating support from the state, but the institution receives roughly $100,000 annually, which is a small fraction of their annual budget.