In Historic Reversal of Policy, Met to Start Charging Admission Fees

Branding is just as important for nonprofits as it is for private enterprises. In today’s marketplace, nonprofits are up against stiff competition from a variety of industries for consumers’ attention, and effective communications are nearly impossible without a public identity that your constituents can understand and recognize.

One major U.S. institution just reversed perhaps its most notable policy, and the price its brand will pay in the long run is uncertain.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (more popularly known as “the Met”) has been free to the public since the 1970s – that is, until now. Organizational leadership has announced that non-New York residents will now have to pay a $25 fee to enter.

Residing inside a publicly owned building, the Met is the largest art museum in the country, and its nearly 50 years of pay-what-you-want entry fees contributed to its international stature and cemented its identity as a truly democratic cultural resource.

During a visit in September, I participated in the pay-what-you-want system and gave the Met $25. In theory, visitors who can afford this recommended fee offset the cost for others who cannot readily pay. Some critics suggest that the museum did not effectively communicate this concept over the years.

Museum officials have cited two trends that led to the policy change: the last decade has seen yearly attendance sore by three million, while the percentage of visitors donating the suggested amount has plummeted by 46 percent. Additionally, the institution has struggled with mismanagement (its director Thomas P. Campbell resigned in ignominy last year), and it tackled its massive deficit only after receiving an $80 million gift from the estate of the late Herbert Irving, the largest gift the Met has ever received.

That life-sustaining donation, however, went toward stalled projects, such as a massive expansion planned for a contemporary art gallery. None of it was earmarked for subsidizing visitor access to the storied museum.

Arts and culture writers have pointed out that the change in policy diminishes the Met’s fame and character. Writing for the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz argues that accessibility of the museum “is an ethical mission, and an especially important one in a city that feels more and more closed.” Considering NYC’s increasingly prohibitive cost of living, the introduction of admission fees at the city’s historically free world-class museum does seem like the end of an era.

The art critic Roberta Smith from the New York Times specifically criticized the policy’s differentiation of visitors: “It divides people into categories — rich and poor, native and foreign.” Long billed as a shining example of equal access, the museum’s somewhat confusing admissions policy now separates visitors into different groups.

What these writers make clear is that this policy change marks a turning point in the museum’s history. Once, the Met was accessible, democratic, and open; now, it is like any other museum, a reality even more painful considering that its building is publicly owned.

There are no easy solutions for the Met’s woes. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the situation is a cautionary tale: prioritize your organization’s key objectives and brand-affirming practices and proactively communicate them to the community and your audiences. Organizations will find themselves suddenly entering periods of change, so best to plan ahead and craft an effective messaging strategy for when difficult decisions need to be made.

Jewish Museum in Philly Faces Cuts. How Can NMAJH Rebound?

The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) is feeling a pinch after several years of lackluster fundraising and growing costs.

The museum – inaugurated in 2010 and housed in a $150 million building on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall – is cutting 36 percent of its staff. Twelve of these positions were eliminated outright, with an additional six to be cut in the coming months. Other services inside the institution are being cut, curtailed, or consolidated. The museum will shutter its cafe and redistribute staff to take care of other responsibilities, and will begin closing on Tuesdays.

Ivy Barsky, the museum’s chief executive, discussed the cuts: “We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions, but it’s in order to sustain a bright future for the museum.”

These are tough days for institutions that celebrate, document, and/or preserve Jewish experience and history. The Trump Administration has suggested a staggering $3 million cut to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s federal funding, which makes up 5 percent of the institution’s overall budget.

In response, more than 60 members of congress have drafted a bipartisan letter decrying the move, which reads in part:

In our view, the mission of the museum has never been more important, particularly as the number of anti-Semitic attacks around the world rises.

Anti-Semitic attacks have grown in number since the emergence of the bigoted, online alt-right movement that works to indoctrinate internet users into hate ideologies. A number of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated over the past 6 months, including one in Philadelphia, home to the NMAJH.

This sad social reality only underscores how essential these institutions are for cementing equality for historically marginalized groups.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, fortunately, probably won’t endure the proposed cut. There is some simple math at work here: with Trump’s disapproval ratings reaching historic highs, his more unpopular proposals that make fellow Republicans bristle probably won’t progress much further. As the strongly worded bipartisan letter from congress indicates, the proposal to cut funding to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is unlikely to go anywhere.

But for NMAJH, life is more difficult. On paper, the museum seems to do well; it has a membership base of 6,000 and a retention rate of around 90 percent, which is higher than many other institutions. The museum also enjoys a spot on one of the most celebrated stretches of museums and historical buildings in the United States. Nonetheless, financial problems persist.

So how can it emerge from its financial troubles? NMAJH’s leadership will have to make some hard choices. The museum, for example, may consider rebranding. Visitors of described the title as long and ungainly. Others view it as a museum for Jewish people as opposed a museum about and celebrating Jewish people.

Renewed online efforts are also likely in order. In this day and age, nonprofits need to function like media companies. By building relationships with its constituents online, NMAJA could grow its already solid membership numbers or stand out in a crowded field of Philadelphia-based historical and cultural institutions.

It may also be time to think outside the box. A number of institutions are experimenting with virtual reality. Such immersive exhibits could position the NMAJH as a next-gen cultural institution and elevate its profile.

Rebounding from financial difficulties is a struggle many nonprofits face. But if an institution’s mission is vital – which NMAJH’s most certainly is – it’s worth looking forward to a better future, so long as there is an elevated commitment from stakeholder groups (on both the local and national levels) and a strong willingness to persevere.

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