Met Museum’s Suggested $25 Fee Isn’t a Breach, Judge Says

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City didn’t breach the terms of its 1878 lease with the city by charging admission fees, a judge ruled, dismissing some claims filed by visitors last year.

Visitors filed two lawsuits starting in 2012 accusing the museum of deceiving the public, particularly tourists, with a recommended $25 admission fee, saying it violated an 1893 state law requiring that the institution be open without charge five days a week.

Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich in Manhattan dismissed claims of breach of lease and violation of the 1893 law in a ruling dated yesterday and made public today. She said that the city, which is allowed to evict the museum if it breaches the lease, has never done so and has never objected to the practice of charging admission.

“For more than 40 years, the city has consistently sanctioned the museum’s admission policy,” Kornreich said. “The policy began with the Parks Department’s explicit approval and still continues to be overseen by the commissioner of Cultural Affairs, who has approved the exact amounts of the museum’s suggested donations. The notion that the city maintains that the museum is breaching the lease is belied by the city’s actions.”

Lease Amended

Kornreich allowed claims of violations of general business law and misrepresentation to continue, along with claims from the first suit seeking to compel the museum to restore an entrance in Central Park and comply with environmental regulations in doing so.

“The Met is delighted with the ruling and trusts this decision once and for all validates its longtime pay-what-you-wish admissions policy -- which, as the judge has declared, guarantees fairness and access for visitors of all economic means,” the museum said in a statement.

Arnold M. Weiss of Weiss & Hiller PC, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the first suit, said in a phone interview that he disagreed with many parts of Kornreich’s ruling and plans to appeal.

His clients will continue to pursue claims that the museum deceived the public with “confusing” signs about the recommended fee and by training cashiers to fool visitors into believing they had to pay the full suggested price, Weiss said.

‘Sufficient Funding’

The museum doesn’t allow the public to enter for free, and visitors must pay at least a penny to get in, Kornreich said in her ruling. The museum advertises a suggested price that has changed over time while admission is “de facto free for all,” the judge said.

“Actual access, provided in a way that ‘nudges’ visitors to donate, is not incompatible with the 1893 Act,” Kornreich said. “Such a policy furthers the goal of the 1893 Act -- providing sufficient funding to ensure access to all.”

The museum last week said it amended its lease with the city to confirm its discretionary admissions policy. Since 1971, entry to the museum has been based on a pay-as-you-wish basis, with a current suggested $25 price for adults. The city first waived the free-admissions provision of the museum’s original lease in 1970.

The amendment authorizes “admission modifications in future years, subject as in the past to review and approval by the city,” the museum said in a statement. The change acknowledges municipal funding was “no longer sufficient to allow the museum to operate without charging admission fees,” it said.

‘An Admission’

Kornreich said the amendment “bolsters the court’s ruling,” while Weiss argued that it is invalid and “an admission that for the last 43 years they didn’t have the right” to charge for admission.

“This alleged amendment was done in the dead of night without notice to anybody from the public so they couldn’t be heard by an administration that is lame duck,” Weiss said. “It’s really Bloomberg’s gift to his friends on the board.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. The mayor is in the final year of his third term in office and barred by law from seeking a fourth term.

The cases are Grunewald v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 158002/2012, and Saska v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 650775/2013, New York state Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).

(Updates with museum comment in sixth paragraph paragraph.)
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