08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture in NYC ? Bring Lots of Cash

A strange thing has been happening in New York City over the last few decades. Cultural institutions which used to be free or very low cost have increased their admission fees to make it virtually impossible for anyone but the upper middle class and wealthy from attending them. I guess that wouldn't be so bad if these institutions were privately financed but, if you look closely, virtually all of the larger ones get enormous direct cash support from the city, state and federal governments, don't pay property taxes -- savings billions -- and receive large charitable donations from individuals and corporations who then deduct these donations from their taxes.

A tour through some of our most illustrious institutions would make a pre-Mandela South African feel right at home. Where is the diversity of the city, which is now over 50% people of color? Except for school groups, nowhere do you see significant numbers of black and brown families touring some of our most famous cultural institutions. A brief examination of fees will explain why. Currently, the Metropolitan Modern has an admission fee of $20 -- the fee is voluntary, but many people don't know it -- the American Museum of Natural History $30 for all attractions; Bronx Zoo $15; Museum of Modern Art $20. Many institutions also claim free days, on week days which make it impossible for the working poor to use -- despite the steady criticism of the poor that they never spend time with their kids -- and finally they claim that children from the public schools come in free.

What's so egregious is that there are free museums operating across the nation and abroad. The Smithsonian in DC, the Getty Center in LA, the Cleveland Museum of Art and museums in Minneapolis, Baltimore, St Louis, Cincinnati, Dayton, Des Moines, and Richmond, Virginia -- all free. Abroad, all major museums in London are free.

It's been suggested that the working poor aren't interested in museums or culture. We do a large survey every year of poor and near poor families in the city -- The Unheard Third -- and specifically asked about why people didn't attend cultural institutions. One in five, which would be about 400,000 New Yorkers, reported that the costs were too high. And they were right. Based on the same survey, 70% of low-income New Yorkers report having less than $100 in total savings. A visit to Museum of Natural History for a family of three would wipe out their entire reserves.

Even given how many people these admission fees stop from coming, it would be somewhat justified if these institutions depended upon admission fees. In fact, they don't. The American Association of Museums reports that admission fees cover only a fraction of the costs of museum operations.

In the midst of this recession with unemployment rates in the city likely to approach 11%, giving the working poor an outlet they can afford to do things with their families seems only fair. Allowing the current trend to continue raises the question of hijacking public dollars ($152 million this year in city money and $1 billion projected for capital over the next five years) for institutions that serve a narrower and narrower segment of New Yorkers. It smacks of creating amenities for the wealthy while providing less and less for those less well off. That's not the way this city should be allowed to go.

Fixing this problem wouldn't take much -- allowing people to simply show an ID with a New York City address to gain admission, while still asking for voluntary contributions. Sending every child in the public school home with a free family membership to all of the cultural institutions which receive city taxpayer supported dollars would be another good idea. But it will require the city's political leadership to put strings on its support to get this done. When you look at the boards of New York's largest cultural institutions, they in no way reflect the diversity of the city, either ethnically or economically. Many of these institutions have leadership that just doesn't have any sense of what the vast majority of New Yorkers are struggling with. That has to change.

View our Unheard Third survey findings here.