MANHATTAN (CN) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art tricks visitors into paying for admission though a century-old law and lease specify free entry most days, a class action claims in state court.
The museum, in Central Park along Fifth Avenue, agreed to the no-fee policy in exchange for a perpetual, rent-free lease of the Beaux-Arts building from New York City, which also picks up the tab for maintenance, utilities and security, lead plaintiff Filip Saska says.
The deal was meant to provide access to great art for citizens "without regard to financial means," according to the complaint in New York County Supreme Court.
But Saska claim the museum has been transformed "into an expensive, fee-for-viewing, elite tourist attraction, where only those of financial means can afford to enter this publicly subsidized institution situated on prime city-owned land."
The complaint estimates the value of the lease at $368 million a year for the 2.4 million square foot museum that occupies four city blocks. Its collection includes more than 2 million objects.
Museum officials estimated in January that 6.28 million people visited in 2012.
The museum was established in 1870 after a group of Americans, touring Paris, agreed a national gallery of art was needed in this country. Initially housed elsewhere in the city, the museum moved to its current location at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street in 1880.
The museum also has a branch focused on medieval Europe, known as The Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.
State lawmakers approved legislation in the 1870s that provided for construction of the building in Central Park and made the museum the exclusive tenant of the structure. The lease contained no mention of rent, according to the complaint, but specified that the museum would be open free of charge at least four days a week.
Those terms were expanded a few years later, but after the museum expressed concerns about costs, lawmakers set the free-admission schedule at five days a week, including Sunday afternoons, plus two evenings a week.
No other legislation has altered the so-called free-admission statute approved in 1893, according to the complaint.
Two of the three named plaintiffs are Czech citizens; one is a resident of New York City. They seek to represent a class of plaintiffs who used a credit card to buy an admission ticket or museum membership in the past three years.
They estimate the "unlawful and deceptive" fees paid by the class in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
They claim the museum violates state consumer protection law with signs, queues and cashier stations that lead visitors to believe they have to pay to enter.
A $25 admission fee is posted in a large, bold font at the main entrance, while the word "recommended" is in "tiny, unbold print," according to the complaint.
Cashiers are trained "to pressure and embarrass" visitors into paying the stated admission fee, the complaint states.
"Nowhere in the building is any visitor advised that admission to the museum exhibition halls is free for most days of each week," the complaint states.
The class claims the Met also uses deceptive practices online, at its website and websites of third-party vendors, where advance-purchase admission and package deals are advertised.
The class seeks an injunction, costs and actual damages, and an end to admission fees on free days and any activities that "insinuate that payment of any sum is required" on those days, such as signs, brochures and promotions.
It also wants the museum to promote the free days in English and Spanish in New York's poorer communities.
The plaintiffs are represented by Michael Hiller of Weiss & Hiller and Matthew Brinckerhoff of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.
Hiller filed a similar lawsuit against the museum and several of its officials in November.