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    $20 Admission? How 'Bout $49.99?

    Date: 18 Jul 2006 | | Views: 4855

    C'mon, Met, you're thinking too small. Act like a business and really stick it to patrons.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art just made a colossal blunder. Our flagship museum of world art recently let slip that it will raise the suggested admission fee next month. Visitors to the venerable New York pile will be asked to slide $20 across the counter, instead of $15, starting Aug. 1.

    Met officials have plainly lost their minds. A 33 1/3% fee hike That's farcical. The Met has bungled its highest mission, failing to promote civic virtue. The new $20 ticket deserves a Bronx cheer.

    The imminent price jump is way, way too small. Three hundred or 400 percent would be closer to the mark. Given an annual operating budget in the vicinity of $250 million and yearly attendance of roughly 4 million people, my calculator says it costs the museum more than 60 bucks for every soul who stumbles through the shiny bronze front doors. The old fee covered only a quarter of the Met's per-visitor cost, and the new fee will cover less than a third.

    Furthermore it's voluntary, not mandatory. Locals might know that, tourists might not. But as part of the museum's city pact to occupy public land in Central Park, admission is not required. After August, when everybody gets back from the Hamptons and tourism heats up, visitors can still pay whatever they wish. Even a Kennedy can drop a couple quarters into the cash box and waltz right in.

    Now, I realize that Met officials don't want to look as if they're taking advantage of the public when calculating prices. They saw how much bad press the Museum of Modern Art got all last year, when it upped its required admission fee to $20 after spending $858 million on a new building.

    Compared to actual expenses, the Met's voluntary $20 fee can be cast as modest. Increasing each visitor's percentage of the burden while still low-balling the price makes the museum appear civic-minded.

    Unfortunately, it also appears hopelessly out of touch. MOMA looked like a spendthrift, but the Met looks as if it's fiddling while Rome burns.

    It's 2006! America has been through Reagan, Bush, Clinton and another Bush. Whether it's health insurance, schools, campaign funding or any of the arts, liberal concepts of public responsibility have been out of fashion for a quarter-century. Didn't the Met get the memo? Americans want things fully privatized.

    Seven years ago I wrote that every art museum should work toward making admission free, but boy was that naive. (It was 1999; as we know, Sept. 11 changed everything.)

    The Met gets a big break on federal, state and local taxes, so it's already raking in huge indirect public subsidies. The government cannot afford to hand out still more not if this country is going to continue spending $7 billion each month waging war. And not if we're going to keep cutting tax rates for the overburdened rich. The U.S. has priorities, after all. Reportedly the Met is trying to make up an annual budget shortfall, lately running between $3 million and $4 million. A little $5 price hike means the museum can meet that peewee goal many times over.

    But whatever happened to grand ambition. If the puniness of the new price tag is just this side of un-American, at least it's headed in the right direction. We certainly can't expect the museum's board of trustees to cover the deficit, even though it's only a hair over 1% of operating costs. Just because trustees tend to be rich, and just because the rich have gotten almost all the income benefits of the country's recent growth spurt while the poor, the middle class and even the upper-middle class have been falling behind, doesn't mean it's up to them to fix everything.

    Ponder this: The poor Met's board chairman isn't even a billionaire. So the solution is obvious: Don't soak the rich, soak the tourists.

    On its website the Met quotes a local academic painter who supports the new $20 price. He says, "The Met is the last good deal in New York...."

    That's the right idea. A museum is all about the art of the deal. If some out-of-towner can afford lodging at an overpriced Midtown hotel, he can sure swing a lot more for a premier tourist attraction.

    Most people wandering the museum's galleries are at the Met because well, because that's where tourists go, after the shoe department at Barney's and before the Circle Line Cruise. Lots of them are looking for air conditioning (or winter steam heat) while waiting for curtain time at "Mamma Mia!," for which they're quick to fork over as much as $100. Is Velazquez a lesser artistic genius than ABBA.

    It's not fair, some say, to compare art museum costs with expenses at entertainment venues Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Shea Stadium. The real comparison, these clowns insist, is between an art museum and a library, as public compendiums of pictures and words.

    How very 18th century. Here in the 21st, the New York Public Library has been selling off assets to raise money, while savvy art museums capitalize on entertainment value. Right now the Met has 15 special exhibitions on view, including "Raphael: The Colonna Altarpiece," "Treasures of Sacred Mayan Kings" and "Girodet: Romantic Rebel." Forget the pandemonium that would ensue if the public library began suggesting an admission fee. Imagine instead what would happen if a public art museum cut back on shows.

    Museum galleries would empty out or, more specifically, the permanent collection galleries would stay as relatively empty as they are now, compared to the typically bustling special exhibition rooms. (There, the soft murmurs of audio-tour headphones convert silent pictures into TV.) Curators would quit too, as show business has long since usurped collection building as the curatorial path to career success.

    So here's a modest proposal: Raise the suggested admission, but get serious. Make it $49.99. That would still be at least 10 bucks short of the cost of letting us in to ogle the mummies, allowing the Met civic bragging rights. Meanwhile $49.99 is a whole lot closer to covering the real expense than a lone Andrew Jackson pumped out of the nearest ATM.

    And think what it would do to the noxious crowds. The Met is always jammed nearly 13,000 people mill about every day, on average. A big ticket would instantly thin the rampaging herd, not only making everyone's visit more enjoyable but also reducing building upkeep. Maintenance costs would dip, but revenue would climb. Cost-saving but pricier new memberships would balloon, which is a goal of steep day-ticket prices.

    You would think a place like the Met might have a savvy marketing department that understood all this, but apparently not. You can tell by the fact that ticket prices are rounded off to the nearest dollar $15, $20. Any first-year marketing student knows the 99-cent rule. Consumers think $49.99 is a whole lot cheaper than $50, and my guess is they'd think it's a whole lot cheaper than $20 too. That's the magic of 99 cents.

    The Met isn't Wal-Mart, where everyday low prices are the norm, but clearly it lacks a modern social conscience. A $49.99 admission would spawn a thriving black market in those little metal admission badges you get when you pony up. Cleaning crews would pilfer them at night, and street hustlers would fence them out on the front steps in the morning. With mediocre residential Manhattan real estate hovering around $1,000 a square foot, robust illegal immigration demands a flourishing underground economy. Without it, the city grinds to a halt. Then what would tourists do.

    The Met is antediluvian, afraid to embrace our profiteering corporate millennium. Visitors used to be thought of as "the museum public," but that quaint mind-set went out with ponytails for men. In the age of mass cultural tourism, museum consumers have supplanted the museum public.

    By definition, consumers pay. They're just not paying enough.

    By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times


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