Dynamist Blog

No Such Thing as a Free Museum

Hardly a day goes by when the NYT does not run an article on the Metropolitan Museum's new "recommended" $20 admission policy. The typical attitude seems to be that pricey museum tickets are an abomination. (Never mind that if you join the museum, as frequent visitors tend to do, admission is free.) Economics columnist David Leonhardt, by contrast, provides a bracingly clear-eyed assessment:

So before denouncing the Met's new policy, it's worth considering what the alternatives are. There is no such thing, after all, as a free museum. No matter what the price on the ticket reads, somebody is paying to buy, preserve, protect and display all those van Goghs and Giacomettis. One option is for taxpayers to pick up the bill, in the form of government subsidies. New York City already covers about 13 percent of the Met's $180 million in annual operating expenses, and it — or the state or federal government — could theoretically pay the rest as well.

This plan, however, seems about as wise as it is likely to happen. If those of us who visit the Met aren't willing to pay for its operation, why should people who don't visit it be asked to pay? Schools, hospitals and roads, all of which could use the money, certainly seem like they should have first claim on the population's collected earnings....

Those who don't feel comfortable with it can simply pay the old one, or whatever they would like. There will surely be some well-to-do freeloaders, visitors who pay $1 when they could easily pay $20, but if there were too many of them, the Met's policy never would have survived this long.

"It's an imperfect system," said Judith Chevalier, a Yale economist who studies pricing, "but I'm not exactly sure what a better one is."

The easiest way to see the virtues of variable prices is sometimes to think about what would happen in their absence. Last week the nearby Neue Galerie said it would charge $50, up from the usual $15, to patrons who wanted to view five Klimt paintings on Wednesdays, a day the gallery is usually closed. A few days later, it abandoned the plan in the face of a public outcry.

So think about what happens now. People who would have paid the $50 and gone on a Wednesday will instead go on other, more crowded days, causing everyone to have less space to enjoy the Klimts. The museum, meanwhile, will bring in less money. Precisely nobody benefits from the cancellation of the $50 tickets.

The last time I was in New York, I witnessed one disadvantage of the "recommended" price policy--not at the Met but at the Museum of the City of New York, which has a "suggested" admission price of $9. A couple of Polish tourists, following a guidebook in their native tongue, were trying to convince the ticket seller that the museum didn't charge. She wouldn't budge and kept pointing to the $9 sign. They kept pointing to their guidebook. The language barrier made communication impossible, but I suspect that nobody has let the ticket seller in on the idea that you can pay what you want. In fact, you can't.

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