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N.Y.'s Metropolitan Museum accused of duping visitors over fees

March 26, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • The board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays admission fees that are recommended but not mandatory. A lawsuit contends that many visitors to the museum don't realize that.
The board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays admission… (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)

NEW YORK -- It’s one of the biggest art museums in the world, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan can also be one of the costliest to visit.  Not even the Louvre in Paris charges near the Met’s top ticket price of $25.

Now, a class-action lawsuit seeks to change things for the visitors who suffer sticker shock as they hand over an admission fee that -- according to the complaint -- they don’t have to pay. In fact, $25 is only a recommendation, as the sign at the cashier’s desk says, but “recommended” is written in “tiny un-bolded print” beneath the list of suggested fees and is either overlooked or misunderstood by most of the millions of people who visit the museum each year, according to the lawsuit filed this month.

It accuses the museum of “misleading and defrauding the public” by failing to make clear that the admission fees are mere recommendations, and of duping people into paying them through a variety of means. These include herding visitors into lines that lead them directly to cashiers, and issuing “admission” buttons that permit entry to exhibition spaces only to people who have paid, the suit says.

The result has been the transformation of the museum “into an expensive, fee-for-viewing, elite tourist attraction” accessible only to those of financial means, said the lawsuit, which a museum spokesman disparaged as a "nuisance." 

 “We are confident that the courts will see through this insupportable nuisance lawsuit,” Harold Holzer told the Associated Press.

The original plaintiffs in the suit were two tourists from the Czech Republic who paid to visit the museum last October, and a New York resident who bought a museum membership last July. According to the complaint, such memberships are a ripoff because one of their main selling points -- free museum admission -- should already be a given.

Membership prices range from $60 to $20,000 and offer various privileges according to the cost. 

Nonmembers who show up at the front desk of the museum, which last year drew more than 6.2 million visitors, see a sign in large, bold type that lists admission fees of $25 for adults, $17 for senior citizens and $12 for students. Children under 12 are free.  The word “recommended” appears in smaller print.

The museum’s website also includes the word “recommended” in its list of admission fees but adds in hard-to-miss italics: “To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount.” The online ticket-purchasing system does not allow buyers to spend less than the full amount and advises them to buy tickets at the door if they want to reduce their admission fee. 

The Met raised its highest recommended fee from $20 to $25 in 2011, but its “recommended” pay system has been in place since 1970. Still, Holzer told the AP that 41% of visitors pay the full amount, which for adults tops admission at most major world art museums. The Louvre’s most expensive ticket is 15 euros, or a little over $19. Admission to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will set you back $15, and London’s Tate Museum is free.

According to the Metropolitan’s operating report for the 2012 fiscal year, admission fees accounted for 16% of the year’s revenue, and membership fees were 11%. The report said the museum’s earned revenue was 10% higher than in 2011, a growth it said “is attributable primarily to strength in admissions and membership.”  Total admissions revenue was $37.8 million, an increase of $5.6 million compared to 2011.

Among other things, the lawsuit demands the removal of signs citing admission fees and a campaign in English and Spanish to inform residents of low-income areas that admission fees are not obligatory.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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