Let them Eat Cake (Instead of Visiting the Met): The Problems with the Metropolitan Museum’s Ticket Fee

The Metropolitan Museum announced on January 4 that the ticket fee would be mandatory for non-residents.

There are many issues that this change bring up for me.

Who is the Museum for?

This move to make the fees mandatory only makes explicit certain issues. A large percentage of the Met’s visitors are tourists, who only attend the institution sporadically. They are people who have the finances to pay for a trip to New York, and the $25 per person fee.

More people go to museums than sporting events. Sporting events are extremely costly. So, museums can certainly charge more for attendance, right? Well, here is the challenge. Museum can charge. And those who can pay, will. But, in the long term, how will this effect visitorship?

As a museum professional, I love a quick stop in a museum. Show my creds, and I can pop in for 15 minutes. I don’t need to spend a whole day there. It can be a quick recharge, not unlike going into a coffee shop, a park, or a library. The museum, for me, is not a special occasion, but instead part of my leisure ecosystem. Special occasion events, like the orchestra, are things that I might spend money to experience, but always not integrated into my life.

But, for most people in America, despite the impressive statistic that people go to museums more often than sporting events, museums are not integrated into their lives. And, museums don’t do a good job integrating museums into their lives. The Met seemed like a special occasion space for many people, a place for a once in a lifetime visit. Or a place that they wouldn’t visit. The sector who didn’t visit will grow, but the sector that is willing to visit for a fee will stagnate or decrease.

Value vs. Cost

Value and cost are two different things. Value is a feeling; cost is an amount. You can certainly value something that has no cost. And, similarly, you might pay something thinking that its value is far more than the cost. If you pay more than you perceive the value, you are likely to avoid that mistake again.

This differentiation is important when considering the fees at museums. Ticketing is a super complicated issue. As Pablita said:

There are so many sectors in the museum visitorship and for them the cost and value have different meanings:

  • The invested visitor/ repeat visitor: Free museums are ideal in the mind of those who understand the value of visiting museums. For them, the cost is far less than the value—it’s a steal. Incidentally, these are often the museum’s cheerleaders. These are the ones who are selling your institution with word of mouth and social engagement. They are working for you for free!
  • For the well-heeled museum visitor: There are those who feel like they should go to the museum. Maybe they are only in town once a year and know that a visit is an important box to check. Maybe they come in every holiday season with their mother. But, since its free, they will probably put it off for the theater or the orchestra. In other words, they are trying to use their leisure time for the thing that seems the most important. They are also unconsciously seeing a relationship between cost and value. This is likely b/c they see free as being equivalent to always available.
  • For those who are not coming to the museum: But, for those who don’t feel welcome at the museum, or don’t know what they would do at the museum, this cost is not an inducement. They see zero value in the museum for them, and with the cost of time, the museum is a bad deal. Visiting the museum, even if it is free, still seems like a ripoff.

What does this mean? Well, frankly, it doesn’t mean that museums should charge. It means that museums need to understand that fees mean different things to different people.  And, when blanket fees appear, elements of their visitorship are affected differently.

  • The well-heeled might think alright this year I’ll buy a ticket to this museum. But, be warned: they might also think not this year because this other leisure experience is a better value.
  • The invested visitor might decide that they can no longer afford to attend, and you lose their free word of mouth.
  • Those who are not coming will still not come.

The last two groups are the particular challenges. You are easily turning off those who love you, like a teen who only wants the popular boy and ignores the loyal friend who loves you despite your ugly pink dress. Those who aren’t coming to the museum learn that they were right. The museum isn’t for them. The museum is basically signaling its values. The museum values those who have $25 for this visit. If you don’t have that money or don’t see the value of that cost, then you won’t be part of the museum’s audience. The museum seems to be expressing that they value those who are willing to pay.



The Met said they were making this decision to assuage budget problems. This $6M dollar is like using the coins in your couch to pay a year’s back rent on Brooklyn apartment. This move though isn’t about the revenue, but a move by the leadership to show their board that they are making the smart fiscal choices (without actually taking a salary hit). It’s a symbolic move, like two very wealthy groups playing chess with the serfs.

There would have been many other ways to make these 6 Million dollars. They could ask development to raise this money (plus the cost of development working those extra hours), and tell the world that they now have free attendance thanks to Ms. Richette Moneybags. I assure you that they would receive as much in pay as you go from daily attendees, and they would have $12M. Not to mention the people who would walk into the store to spend part of the $25 they were just saved from thanks to Ms. Moneybags. (And while cafes usually lose money for museums, stores can bring in money.)

They could have said that they are using this $6 Million to start a fund to help those who don’t have the funds to come. And, if they actually did said outreach, they would also find themselves receiving more donations from their visitors.

Or they could do what they did, which was to show their cards. In this case, they showed that they wish to maintain their existing aristocratic underpinnings and funding structures. They want to maintain their existing visitor demographic. And, they want their future to be one where the Met is a place that is only for some.

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