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Celli ’87 on the Met's Price Confusion

Posted on Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Andrew Celli Jr. '87 was quoted in a New York Times article about two lawsuits brought before the New York State Supreme Court against the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the article, the cases accuse "the museum of misleading the public not only about how much to pay - but also, more important, about whether it is necessary to pay at all."

"This is a case about democracy in New York," Celli is quoted as a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "We had a partnership between the government and the arts communities, and it is clear that the bargain has broken down."

The article explains, "There is no question that except for the most alert visitor, a murkiness surrounds the matter of how to gain entry to the museum correctly. First, there are the signs that set out admissions prices in bold type - $25 for adults; $17 for those over 65 - and also contain the smaller, unbolded word ‘recommended.' Then there are the printed materials noting that a perk of annual membership (cost: $60 and up) is free admission, the implication being that members get huge savings - which, in fact, they do not, since technically they are not required to pay very much to begin with.

"There are Internet deals, including a recent offer from Groupon, that offer discounted tickets but fail to point out that visitors already have the right to unilaterally discount their own tickets."

"I know lifetime New Yorkers who don't quite know what it all means," Celli said. "And it's much harder if you're not a New Yorker."

A founding partner of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff and Abady LLP, Celli maintains a diverse practice representing institutions and individuals in commercial, civil rights and civil liberties matters in courts around the country.

He holds a law degree from New York University School of Law, and has written and lectured widely on civil rights and civil liberties issues, appearing at the National Association of Attorneys General, Harvard Law School, New York University School of Law, Albany Law School, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and as a legal commentator on Court TV. Celli served as a commissioner and vice chair of the New York State Temporary Commission on Lobbying from 2004 through 2007, and as a commissioner of the New York State Commission on Public Integrity from 2007 through 2011. In 2012, he was a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at the Harvard Law School. He has been a member of the board of directors of the Grand Street Settlement, a Lower East Side community organization, since 1993, and was board president from 2009 through 2012.

While at Hobart, Celli was a political science major who graduated magna cum laude, was a resident adviser, a Druid, and a member of the Herald and Phi Beta Kappa. He also served as Student Trustee on the Colleges' Board of Trustees. He is married to Ellen Unterberg Celli '85. He returned to the Colleges as the speaker at the 2008 Benjamin Hale Dinner.

The New York Times article follows:

New York Times
Seeking Clarity on Fees at the Metropolitan Museum

Sarah Lyall • October 7, 2013


Seeking to reconcile two contradictory realities - a friend said admission was free, and a sign said admission might or might not be $25 - Ingrid Opperman stood at the entrance desk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a recent morning and whipped out her English-German dictionary.

"I am looking up ‘admissions,' " explained Ms. Opperman, 75. "I am also looking up ‘recommended.' "

You don't have to be from Stuttgart to feel befuddled by the Met's entrance policy, with its signs telling you what to spend and then suggesting that you do not have to spend it. Two lawsuits wending their way through State Supreme Court are seeking to address that confusion, accusing the museum of misleading the public not only about how much to pay - but also, more important, about whether it is necessary to pay at all.

Late last month, the museum argued in State Supreme Court that the cases, brought by members of the public, had no merit and should be thrown out. (The judge has yet to rule.)

Under a clause in its original 1876 lease for the space, and according to an 1893 state law, the suits contend, the museum is required to allow visitors to be admitted free on most days of the week.

"This is a case about democracy in New York," said Andrew G. Celli Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "We had a partnership between the government and the arts communities, and it is clear that the bargain has broken down."

Many visitors make a different sort of bargain when they visit the museum, an internal one involving rapid and conflicting questions of guilt, moral obligation, personal financial prudence and not wanting to look cheap.

Meanwhile, the Met said that free admission went the way of free love back in 1970, when a new deal struck between the city and the museum effectively superseded all the old arrangements. Though controversy raged around the introduction of the new "Pay What You Wish" policy back then, those were simpler times, with simpler sums: many visitors paid less than 25 cents to receive the famous Met buttons (which were briefly tickets and are now stickers).

"The agreement with the city specifies that there has to be some minimal contribution," said Harold Holzer, the Met's senior vice president for public affairs. "There are people who express their own interpretation of the policy by paying very little. But something is required."

There is no question that except for the most alert visitor, a murkiness surrounds the matter of how to gain entry to the museum correctly. First, there are the signs that set out admissions prices in bold type - $25 for adults; $17 for those over 65 - and also contain the smaller, unbolded word "recommended." Then there are the printed materials noting that a perk of annual membership (cost: $60 and up) is free admission, the implication being that members get huge savings - which, in fact, they do not, since technically they are not required to pay very much to begin with.

There are Internet deals, including a recent offer from Groupon, that offer discounted tickets but fail to point out that visitors already have the right to unilaterally discount their own tickets.

"I know lifetime New Yorkers who don't quite know what it all means," Mr. Celli said. "And it's much harder if you're not a New Yorker."

In its defense, the Met points out that it charges nothing for special exhibitions and that even $25 does not cover the cost of a museum visit.

If the Met loses in court, it stands to forfeit some $40 million in annual revenue, or about 16 percent of its $250 million operating budget. An adverse decision could also affect other museums in the city, like the American Museum of Natural History, which has a similar suggested admissions policy.

To understand the plaintiffs' arguments, it is necessary to go back to the 1870s, when the state authorized the Parks Department to set aside land for a grand new art museum of which the city could be proud. Whether the museum should charge admission was one of the most hotly contested issues surrounding its inception. In the end, its lease with the city specified that on four days a week it "be kept open and accessible to the public free of charge." In 1893, the state legislature enacted a law changing that to five days and two nights a week. That left the museum able to charge for admission on non-free days.

And that was where the matter stood, more or less, until the early 1970s, when the museum was running at a deficit, and its director, Thomas Hoving, asked the city for permission to charge general admission daily. The City Council balked. "A penny today may be a dollar tomorrow," warned Councilman Carter Burden, according to court papers.

But a deal was hatched between Hoving and August Heckscher, the redoubtable New York City Parks Commissioner and Administrator of Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Heckscher said he would allow the museum to charge a fee as long as its amount was "left entirely to the individual's discretion."

Heckscher promised to direct the city's Corporation Counsel office to amend the museum's lease, but it never did. (The museum says no amendment was needed because, as the museum's landlord, the city can set whatever rules it wants.)

According to the two lawsuits - one that says the museum deceives its visitors and is guilty of fraud, and the other a class-action suit seeking recompense for people who claim that they were duped by the policy - the Heckscher-Hoving agreement violates the lease and the law. The plaintiffs in the suits comprise five museumgoers, including a persistent critic of, and past litigant against, the museum on other matters, and two Czech citizens who responded to an Internet appeal for people who said they had been misled into paying the full suggested admissions price.

The museum's lawyers argue, among other things, that the parties in the two suits have no standing to sue; that the 1893 act was merely an appropriations act; and that, in the end, none of that really matters, because the city specifically said the charges could be imposed.

"This notion that the plaintiffs have encouraged, and that has been picked up in the blogosphere - that you don't have to pay anything - is not true," Mr. Holzer said.

Moreover, he said, "The signage is clear." He added that the average visitor pays $11, "which indicates to me that people are paying exactly what they wish."

About 10 years ago, Mr. Holzer said, the museum switched from its previous mitigating word, "suggested," to the new one, "recommended." "We wanted to see if it made any difference," he said, and it didn't make much difference.

A recent visit to the museum found an array of admissions-related opinions. Some people said they felt guilty and stingy unless they paid the recommended amount; others said they loved the museum and thought any price was worth it; and still others said they could not figure out what they were supposed to do.

"We kind of heard a rumor that you don't have to pay," said Kim Archibald, 33, who was visiting from Canada and on a budget. In the end, she and her two friends paid a total of $23, all they had allotted for incidental expenses that day. "This is not the cheapest city in the world to visit," she said.

 

 


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