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.

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