By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City and its famed Metropolitan Museum of Art have amended their lease to formalize the practice of charging a "recommended" admission fee while still allowing visitors to pay any amount they choose.
The museum, the largest in the United States, was originally intended to be free to the public under its 1878 lease with the city, but since 1971 it has been charging a recommended fee.
Many visitors end up paying the full "recommended" amount - $25 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students - without realizing they could pay any lesser amount, whether a penny or a dollar.
The prices are posted at the museum entrance with the word "Recommended" printed in markedly smaller, italicized type.
Some six million people a year visit the vast museum at the edge of Central Park that is home to collections of Greek and Roman statues, Egyptian ruins, and classic and modern art, with several temporary exhibits on display at any given time.
Two lawsuits challenging the recommended fee contend the admissions policy misleads visitors into overpaying and violates the original lease, under which the museum operates rent-free on city land.
The lease amendment, announced on Thursday, formalizes a practice that has been in place since 1971, when the museum says it reached a written agreement with the city parks department to start charging visitors a suggested fee.
"I think what happened is the city just decided it would make good sense to codify agreements that have been in place for 40 or 50 years," said Harold Holzer, a museum spokesman.
The lease amendment also allows the museum to charge a set compulsory entrance fee, with the city's consent, though the museum says it has no plans to do so.
The lawsuits, one of which is a class-action suit encompassing anyone who has ever paid admission to the museum with a credit card, say the shift to the recommended admission fee was done improperly - in breach of both a 19th-century state law and the spirit of the original lease - and is carried out in a way that misleads visitors into thinking they have no choice.
The museum says the average visitor pays about $11, and that the cost to the museum per visitor each year is more than $40, a difference it makes up with money from the city, grants and revenue from its more than $2.5 billion endowment, among other sources.
Arnold Weiss, a lawyer for plaintiffs in both cases, said the amended lease did not affect the lawsuits, and criticized a change he said took place "in the darkness of night" without public consultation.
"They have been charging these fees for 43 years," he said. "Now they amend it. Is that an acknowledgement that they didn't have the right all this time?"
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Gunna Dickson)