Towards Equitable Met Ticketing

On March 1st the Metropolitan Museum of Art instituted a new admissions policy making its ticket prices mandatory, instead of suggested as per its previous long-standing policy, for out-of-state visitors. New York residents, as well as tri-state area students, may still pay what they wish (pwyw henceforth in this post).

We propose that the Met should price tickets on a sliding scale by visitors’ income, using self-declaration as its basis, and apply the same pricing scale to all visitors regardless of whether they come from in-state or out. Furthermore, it is feasible that the Met could use such a policy, which foregrounds equity and accessibility, and achieve its financial goals.

What follows is an outline of our thought process and rough calculations. Sources and numbers are grouped in an appendix at the bottom of this post.

The Met’s ticket revenue

The graph below shows a breakdown of the Met’s admissions revenue from one-time ticket sales from its last decade of annual reports. For comparison, revenue generated from Met memberships is also shown.

All numbers from Met annual reports (see Appendix at bottom of post)

Putting together a sliding scale

  • One of the key pieces of information needed to evaluate the revenue generated by a sliding scale is the distribution of visitors/customers by income bracket. 
    We don’t have this — even the Met may or may not have this with great accuracy. However, at some point someone has at least tried to measure visitor income because this article includes a graph that puts the average income of a Met visitor at $81,000/year. To get a very rough picture of Met visitor income, we’ll take the income distribution of New York City and skew it to meet this mean average. This is a massive approximation and we know it.
  • Now that we have an income distribution as a base, we can choose scale pricing. 
    The Met’s pwyw policy had the potential for visitors to enter for free, and this was a fairly significant piece of the Museum’s identity*, so it makes sense to start our scale at $0 for the least financially able of visitors. We can additionally assert a couple more basic goals: to keep the highest price cheaper than 1/2 the cost of membership (since members can bring guests), to keep as many people as possible below $25. Choosing the exact scale price tiers will be somewhat trial and error.
  • What if visitors are untruthful in following our income scale?

We propose that this scale be recommendation** only (verifying income is all but impossible in a timely fashion, not to mention highly intrusive). Some people will disregard these recommendations, either willfully gaming the system, or simply cheating a bit to what “feels right.”

We assign all visitors one of 3 levels of ‘truthiness.’ 17% of visitors to the Met in FY 2017 paid the full suggested $25 admission fee under the pwyw policy; let us say that 17% of visitors will pay their scale price exactly as recommended. Let us say that a mirrored 17% will pay as little as possible, $0. The remaining 66% we will approximate to a sort of half-truthiness and say will choose one tier down on the price scale from where their income would actually place them. This way they conform to the spirit of the price scale, but still feel that they’ve taken advantage of getting a better deal.

*We are aware that the Museum is contractually obligated to allow New Yorkers free entrance as part of their deal with the city. This proposal is not concerned with the logistics of changing the Met’s policy as this is an entirely separate issue.

  • Putting these together, let’s look at how our scale does!
top: visitor income distribution, bottom: scaled ticket price by income bracket

According to the income distribution and price tiers shown, and adjusted according to the truthiness scheme we just detailed, our scale generate annual revenue of $53 Million, which just exceeds the upper bound ($11M) of the increase the Met set as its goal.

In the absence of actual trials or data all scaled ticket price values are of necessity slightly arbitrary, but the broad strokes of this scale make sense for a number of reasons:

  1. The scale starts at 0, and prices remain distinctly low for low-income visitors, preserving the spirit of accessibility of the Met’s original pwyw model.
  2. The scale crosses the “original price” $25 mark above the mean average of the income distribution ($81k/year). The majority of all Met visitors will pay less than the current suggested price under this scheme.
  3. The scale tops out at $35 for visitors making more than $250,000 per year. This is an expensive ticket, but it’s also less than half as much on a percentage-of-yearly-income basis as the $24 ticket is for the average income bucket.
  4. A $35 ticket remains cheaper than membership (the lowest tier of which is $100, or $80 for those living close to the city) if one or two people are entering the museum. At the same time, for anyone who would repeatedly visit the Met a membership becomes a much better value. Membership revenue has declined in the past several years — incentivizing membership signups could be an added bonus!

Appendix: Numbers, and where we got them

The Met’s initial announcement that it would change its admissions pricing generated a great deal of coverage. From various of the Met’s press releases, interviews, and repository of annual reports, here is the information we used in thinking about sliding scale ticketing:

  1. The Met’s Ticket prices and revenue
  • The Met’s goal for its new mandatory out-of-state tickets is to increase its revenue by $6–11M per year. This has also been phrased as increasing the Met’s admissions revenue from 14% of its operating budget to 16–17%.
  • The Met’s suggested price for adult, one-time* tickets is $25. For students over 12 years old it is $12, and for Seniors $17. Children under 12 enter for free. Under the Met’s new policy, these prices are mandatory for out-of-state visitors.
  • Under the Met’s previous pwyw policy, the average price paid by adult visitors was $9.13 per ticket in 2017, and 17% of visitors paid the full suggested $25 fee.
  • The Met’s annual reports helpfully separate revenue from one-time ticket sales and membership revenue. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, the Met’s revenue from one-time ticket sales (hence, Admissions Revenue) was $41.7M
(Source: Met Annual Report FY 2017, emphasis ours)

* “One-time” meaning entry tickets not obtained from a museum membership. Met tickets can be used for 3 days at the Met, the Breuer, and the Cloisters, so they are in fact not literally one-time use.

2. The Met’s visitors

3. Extrapolated numbers

  • From the Met’s $41.7M admissions revenue, and average price-paid-per-visitor of $9.13, we could estimate that about 4.57 million visitors paid for Met tickets on a pwyw basis. Going forward, we use 4 million one-time ticket purchasers as ballpark figure.
    What about students/elderly who pay on a reduced rate? 
    The number of students is quite small. Let’s say the number of elderly visitors is about twice the number of students. Even altogether (especially because their monetary contributions are smaller than adults) we can probably ignore the effects of these two price tiers.
  • What is the income distribution of Met visitors? Some idea of this is essential for gauging, even at the most approximate level, the viability of a sliding scale. We were unable to find a publicly available study or publication with this information, so our working income distribution is the income distribution of New York City residents adjusted against a normal distribution centered around $81,000/year.

4. Points of conflict

  • The Met’s own press releases state that its new pricing policy will effect 31% of its visitors. From the other information we have found we are unable to verify exactly where this number comes from. The simple fact that only ~40 some odd percent of visitors come from New York, and 37% of visitors are international, makes this 31% projection seem low.
  • Another way to look at this is to say that if 31% of the Met’s total 7M visitors suddenly have to pay $25 instead of an average $9.13 then Met’s admissions revenue will shoot up by over $34 million. That’s way more than their stated goals, so if both statements are accurate there’s presumably something more complex going on behind the scenes in that model that isn’t publicly documented.
  • We point this out not to cast aspersions on the Met’s calculations which, we must stress, are surely based on a much more complete and granular set of data than our back-of-the-envelope work in this proposal. Any serious implementation of a complex admission policy like sliding scale would require thorough research, modeling, and logistics considerations — and we would be delighted to have the opportunity to revisit our thoughts here with the Met’s cooperation and data.
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