Assessing the Cost to See Priceless Art


The Metropolitan Museum of Art is open seven days a week until 5:30pm with later hours Fridays and Saturdays. (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is open seven days a week until 5:30pm with later hours Fridays and Saturdays. (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

In addition to offering opportunities for learning experiences and fun days out, museums are usually inexpensive or free to the public. Recently, some museums and churches that had before recommended admission rates have decided to reinstate mandatory admission fees.

Take the National Cathedral. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke when its cornerstone was laid, and Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon there, so the church has great historical significance. A few months ago, the cathedral began charging fees for tourists. This fee was added to help combat the National Cathedral’s $19 million debt, and it is now the first cathedral in the United States to charge admission.

This is not the only institution whose admission policies have been controversial. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan has always had recommended pricing, but it was never a selling factor of the museum. This past fall, the Met came under criticism for its vague “recommended” fee of $25 for adults. Many people, especially tourists, miss the fine print and fail to realize that this $25 fee is only suggested. Anyone can go to the museum and pay two bucks for a ticket if he or she so chooses. There were two lawsuits against the Met claiming that the admission policies were hard to understand and have been misleading the public. The recommended fee has been around since 1971 and had the city’s support the whole time. After these lawsuits, the museum developed a new lease amendment that authorizes it to charge separate admission for special exhibitions. The reason for the price in general stems from ongoing challenges to the budget.

The downsides of such a policy are often understated.  Many assume that if a museum costs more, fewer people will visit. Multiple surveys have analyzed the effect of admission fees on attendance showing that price does not significantly influence attendance rates. The few negative effects of admission fees are easy to fix. The majority of visitors believe that having to pay for a museum or exhibit shows it is worth the price. On the other hand, as a way to increase revenue, pay-as-you-wish has been met with mixed results. In an experiment done five years ago, the Panera Bread Foundation instituted a “no price” system, with recommended prices for most of its dishes. The program, Panera Cares, attempted to raise awareness of chronic hunger and many of the proceeds went to charity. While some people paid more than usual to help the cause, others chose not to pay at all. This experiment brought in 70 percent of the revenue that the regular system would have made, allowing Panera to just cover the costs of the products and staff. Panera shut down the program fairly quickly, claiming that communication is the key to a successful suggested donation system.

For museums and churches, however, the best model would be pay-as-you-can, which is heavily reliant on fewer, but larger, donations. This model is popular with many visitors, especially students.

“It is nice that the prices are recommended because you can pay whatever you want or you can choose to pay more. Wealthier people are able to give large donations, while we have the freedom to pay what we can on a college budget,” said Julie Milea, FCRH ‘17.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pricing scheme only covers 16 percent of its budget, with the more substantial donations coming from outside sources, be they corporate or individual. Also, by advertising the ways donations support charity or the arts, institutions can encourage people to voluntarily give more. The National Cathedral should also use the pay-as-you-can model to give visitors a more personalized interaction with the famous church. Institutions such as churches and museums benefit from large donations and support for specific causes, so the pay-as-you-can model ought to remain.

Amanda Giglio is Assistant Culture Editor at The Fordham Ram.


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