Met Museum needs to live up to its history and its public

The marble "Bust of Brutus" is displayed at the Michelangelo exhibit titled "Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 13, 2017, in New York.

Jillian Steinhauer writes about art and politics and is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For the first time in 48 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will begin charging some of its visitors a fixed and mandatory admission fee. Starting March 1, anyone visiting the museum from outside New York state will have to pay to enter the Met's hallowed halls: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students -- except those studying in Connecticut or New Jersey, who will still be covered by the museum's current pay-what-you-wish policy. New Yorkers who show proof of residence will also be able to continue paying what they like.

Jillian Steinhauer
At first thought, this change may not sound so bad. After all, art museums around the country charge admission fees, many of them the same price as the Met's figure: $25 will get you into the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; or the Guggenheim. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago both charge $25 for out-of-town adults, and both have discounts for local residents -- examples that the Met points to in defending its new scheme.
Yet the truth is, the Met isn't quite like any of those other institutions. As the largest art museum in the country -- and the second-most-visited art museum in the world behind the Louvre -- it stands alone in the United States especially. What's more, the Met is a public institution in many senses of the word. New York City owns its main building on Fifth Avenue and the land that building sits on in Central Park.
    The Met's new policy reflects a way of thinking that sees the museum as a private investment, a palace of commodities, rather than a public resource devoted to knowledge. The former model is how the Met came to be: it's an encyclopedic museum whose massive collection was built by the wealth, theft, and power of Western white people. Its status as a public resource is the only ethical way for the Met to survive. Institutions of its kind, including the British Museum and the Louvre, are vestiges of imperialism; they pride themselves on housing and preserving precious objects from all around the world. The Met, for instance, has a leading collection of ancient Egyptian art. Is it really going to tell Egyptian visitors that they now have to pay more money than New Yorkers to see the Temple of Dendur?
    In a worldwide climate of increasing privatization, worsening discrimination, and closed borders, cultural institutions have the opportunity to do what so many political ones can't: Open their doors to everyone, equally. Encourage coexistence and conversation among different people.
    The Met was incorporated by the New York State Legislature in 1870 with a mandate of "encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of the arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, furnishing popular instruction and recreation" -- in other words, public education. An 1893 law promised government funding to the museum if it were "kept open and accessible to the public hereafter free of all charge throughout the year."
    That passage has been a sticking point for the Met for a long time. As the museum grew and government funding didn't, the institution looked for ways to bring in more money, including admission fees. Over the years it tested a variety of schemes -- always, by necessity of its lease, with City approval -- until, in 1971, it hit upon the idea of universal suggested admission. That policy was not without its detractors -- some people sued over it, saying the museum's signage was misleading. While the fight raged over language, however, the Met was quietly working to secure permission to charge visitors in a more fixed way.
    To be fair, the Met does need money. It's currently working to make up a $10 million budget deficit, according to the New York Times, after controversy and a series of missteps forced the resignation of the institution's last director, Thomas P. Campbell.
    In February of last year, the Times reported that the Met's deficit was approaching $40 million; three weeks later, Campbell "resigned under pressure." Since then, Met President and CEO Daniel Weiss has been working to get the museum back on firm financial footing.
    According to the Times, the Met estimates that it will bring in an annual $49 million -- nothing to scoff at, but also only a $6 million increase over what admissions fees currently provide. Six million is not a lot in the Met's approximately $305 million operating budget. Was there really no other way to come up with that money? At an institution where, just a few years ago, conservative billionaire David Koch gave $65 million for the redesign of an outdoor plaza, that's hard to believe. Why not seek a corporate sponsor or individual donor to underwrite admission, as happens elsewhere? At the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, everyone gets in free, thanks to Walmart.
    It's fundamentally unfair to make out-of-towners pay to fix the Met's overspending mistakes; it shifts the burden onto those who may not be able to afford it. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed his support for the new policy by quipping, "I'm a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met" -- as if middle- and working-class families from Ohio to India didn't plans trips to one of the world's most famous museums. If those families have two kids, they now have to budget $49 just to visit the Met.
    Meanwhile, New Yorkers will still be able to pay $1 if they like, but they'll be carded for that privilege. The museum says it plans to accept many forms of identification, including bank statements and IDNYC cards, but will undocumented people really feel comfortable showing papers to guards at the door? Will those without government ID -- usually people of color -- assume they won't be let in? Although it may be unintentional, the Met's new policy draws distinctions between visitors, prioritizing certain races, ethnicities, classes, and places of origin.
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    This is disheartening at a time when more people are calling attention to the overwhelming whiteness of cultural institutions, and the climate of exclusivity that creates. Some institutions, like the High Museum in Atlanta, are even combating the trend by actively working to diversify their audiences.
    Museums weren't founded as democratic spaces, but that's the role our society has assigned them, and it's a valuable one. They owe it to their public to play it.