Metropolitan Museum of Art works to rebound from money woes
Posted May 15
NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a behemoth of culture and wealth, is rebounding from more than a year of internal turmoil and financial problems.
As part of its recovery efforts, the museum is considering a mandatory admissions fee for visitors from outside New York state. The set fee, possibly $25 for adults, would be the first in the venerable museum's 147-year history.
Facing a $15 million operating deficit, the Met filed a formal proposal with New York City this month to charge visitors who don't live in the state a set admission, instead of the current voluntary contribution.
"We've had financial challenges — significant ones — over the last couple of years that have culminated over the past year, and a rather significant need to reorganize the institution and to retrench our finances," said Daniel Weiss, the museum's president.
About 100 staff positions have been eliminated through buyouts and layoffs. The number of special exhibits staged each year is being slashed from 55 to about 40. A $600 million new wing that had been planned, but not fully financed, is postponed indefinitely. Instead, the Met will be focusing on more pressing capital needs, Weiss said, including spending as much as $100 million to replace a block-long "ocean of bad skylights" built in the 1930s over art galleries.
Met director and chief executive Thomas Campbell stunned the art world in February by announcing his resignation, amid criticism of the museum's financial management.
"It was clear we were on a path that was not sustainable, and if we didn't deal with it, it was going to get worse in a hurry," said Weiss, who took the reins from Campbell and is now the interim CEO.
He blamed the museum's financial problems on "a perfect storm" of money-sucking factors: too many costly special exhibitions; restaurants and gift shops where revenues declined; and public programming that was overly ambitious.
Revenue from admissions and membership also had slipped.
But make no mistake, there's no immediate danger to the museum, which has endowments of $3 billion.
Admissions fees might help ease the current budget deficit, which was about 5 percent of the $315 million in operating costs in 2016.
"The deficit is not high compared to the total budget, but remember, these numbers are not just about the money: Donors want to back a winning story, and any indication that it's not makes them skittish," said Andrew Taylor, an arts management expert at Washington-based American University.
The details of how the fees would work are the subject of talks with the city, which gives the museum $27 million in subsidies annually. The city also owns the museum site in Central Park and has approval rights for entrance policies.
An entrance fee of $25 would be in line with admissions to other New York art institutions, from the MoMA ($25) and the Guggenheim ($25) to the Whitney ($22).
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave some generalized support to the idea, saying it was "fair" for non-state residents to pay something. "I'm a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met," the mayor joked recently.
Of the record 7 million visitors in 2016, 67 percent came from outside New York state and 39 percent of the total from abroad.
In recent years, the museum was targeted by a class-action lawsuit that challenged the Met's "recommended" $25 admission and accused the institution of obscuring the fact that people could enter for less. The case was settled last year when the Met agreed to say the price is only "suggested," with signs telling visitors that "The amount you pay is up to you."
Visitors have split on whether an entrance fee should be mandatory for some.
Angeleka Kunath, 64, visiting from Hamburg, Germany, said she feels foreigners should pay and would gladly do so to keep the Met running at its best.
"The price is worth it. Art is so important for our lives and humanity; it gives us inspiration it brings people together," she said.
Ken Wilson, 60, who was visiting from Greensboro, North Carolina, said he didn't think anyone would have a problem paying to get in.
"It's amazing and educational," he said. But he said it was unfair that New Yorkers would get a discount. And with the search for its new director underway, the museum could maybe discuss cutting the high six-figure salaries of its top executives.
Associated Press Writer Joshua Replogle contributed to this report.