Was anyone else clued into the fact that New Yorkers have the right to free admission for 17 arts and culture institutions situated on New York City parklands? I certainly wasn’t, and my checking account is rightfully glaring at me about my last three visits to the Bronx Zoo. Now, one New York native is on the quest to advocate for NYC residents’ free admission rights, a perk of living (and paying taxes) in the Big Apple that institutions don’t always make clear.
Pat Nicholson’s Free Admission campaign references the mid-1800s law allotting free rent on park land to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in exchange for free admission to New York residents as part of a “Park Education Campus” that was later amended throughout the following century to incorporate 16 additional publicly supported institutions. These include the Brooklyn Museum, the five locations within the New York Zoological Society (AKA Wildlife Conservation Society), the New York Botanical Garden, and more. A complete list of the institutions is included at the end of this article.
Apparently, all or some New Yorkers (usually identified as public educators and students) must be granted free admission to the park-situated institutions due to the fact that our taxes subsidize their rent and maintenance costs. Unfortunately, many of us don’t recognize this to be the case as a majority of the institutions characterize ticket policies for New Yorkers as “pay as you wish” rather than “free admission” outright, or otherwise employ language that may be confusing to some visitors.
For example, the Brooklyn Museum is free to all visitors — not just New Yorkers — and its ticketing website does indicate that admissions rates are suggested and not fixed, but anecdotally, several Hyperallergic staff members recall being told point-blank at the museum that general admission was a specific rate without being informed that it was suggested.
When reached for comment, a Brooklyn Museum spokesperson apologized and confirmed the institution’s free admission policy. “We work to make our ticket pricing communication as clear as possible in the front of house, that General Admission prices are suggested, our Museum is donation based, and you pay as you wish,” she said.
The Free Admission campaign took off in 2012, when Nicholson filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Museum of Art with regard to its admission policies. The judge threw out the case, but another lawsuit of the same nature resulted in a 2016 settlement whereby the museum changed the language of its signage from “recommended” to “suggested” so as to better communicate free admissions opportunities.
Wanting New Yorkers to know about and take advantage of their right to free admission, Nicholson launched her campaign and is fighting for two bills to orchestrate state-funded studies examining the way these institutions observe the free admissions policy and codify the existing law and its amendments for improved institutional compliance.
“For each institution, there is a differing measure of ‘free’ that applies, as written in their founding legislation, laws and contracts,” Nicholson explained to Hyperallergic. “In some instances, free access and instruction is to be provided every day of the year, others during all operating hours, some only for public and private schools.”
Excluding the AMNH, The Met, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music due to their explicit compliance, Hyperallergic reached out to the remaining institutions for clarification regarding free admission in accordance with state and city laws Nicholson references in her resources page. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) was the only institution to reply so far, stating that since 2020, 20% of the daily general admission tickets were given away for free to visitors without requiring proof of a New York address. These so-called “Community Tickets” are referenced on BBG’s website, but the spokesperson for the institution did not acknowledge that the law requires free admission for all New Yorkers. BBG does offer free school group visits, though.
Not everyone is on board with Nicholson’s efforts. The Met’s senior vice president of External Affairs, Ken Weine, told Hyperallergic that he believes the current suggested admission system is in place for a reason.
“New York is New York because we have museums that can thrive — which is made possible by the pay as you wish policies that generations of city leaders have designed, and which provide unparalleled cultural access to all New Yorkers,” Weine said.
Nicholson is seeking support for her Free Admissions campaign and her two bills to gain more traction through an online petition to raise awareness for New Yorkers’ rights to culture and education. Dozens of city residents who signed the petition expressed their frustrations with being priced out of beloved museums and cultural institutions and demanded free access as taxpayers in the city. The shared sentiment is especially salient as Governor Hochul signed a bill last July repealing the New York Botanical Garden’s obligation to provide free admission for NY residents by 2025 to “help sustain the organization’s operations and botanical exhibits.”
The institutions cited in Nicholson’s Free Admission campaign are as follows:
- American Museum of Natural History
- Brooklyn Botanic Garden
- Brooklyn Academy of Music
- Brooklyn Children’s Museum
- Brooklyn Museum
- Museum of the City of New York
- New York Botanical Garden
- New York Hall of Science
- Staten Island Museum
- Staten Island Zoo
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Wave Hill
- Bronx Zoo
- Central Park Zoo
- New York Aquarium
- Prospect Park Zoo
- Queens Zoo