NEW YORK -- Before visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art can stroll past the Picassos, Renoirs, Rembrandts and other priceless works, they must first deal with the ticket line, the posted $25 adult admission and the meaning of the word in smaller type just beneath it: "recommended."
Many people, especially foreign tourists, either don't see it, don't understand it or don't question it. If they ask, they are told the fee is merely a suggested donation: You can pay what you wish but you must pay something.
Some who choose to pay less than the full price pull out a $10 or $5 bill. Some fork over a buck or loose change. Those who balk at paying anything at all are told they won't be allowed in unless they pay something, even a penny.
"I just asked for one adult general admissions and he just said, '$25,"' says Richard Johns, a high school math teacher from Little Rock, Ark., who paid the full price at the museum this past week. "It should be made clear that it is a donation you are required to make. Especially for foreign tourists who don't understand. Most people don't know it."
Confusion over what's required to enter one of the world's great museums, which draws more than 6 million visitors a year, is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit this month accusing the Met of scheming to defraud the public into believing the fees are required.
The lawsuit contends that the museum uses misleading marketing and training of cashiers to violate an 1893 New York state law that mandates the public should be admitted for free at least five days and two evenings per week. In exchange, the museum gets annual grants from the city and free rent for its building and land along pricey Fifth Avenue in Central Park.
Met spokesman Harold Holzer denied any deception and said a policy of requiring visitors to pay at least something has been in place for more than four decades. "We are confident that the courts will see through this insupportable nuisance lawsuit."
The suit seeks compensation for museum members and visitors who paid by credit card over the past few years.
"The museum was designed to be open to everyone, without regard to their financial circumstances," said Arnold Weiss, one of two attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of three museum-goers, a New Yorker and two tourists from the Czech Republic. "But instead, the museum has been converted into an elite tourist attraction."
Among the allegations are that third-party websites do not mention the recommended fee, and that the museum sells memberships that carry the benefit of free admission, even though the public is already entitled to free admission.
Lined up to testify is a former museum supervisor who oversaw and trained the Met's admissions cashiers from 2007 to 2011. Michael Hiller, the other attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the supervisor trained cashiers to encourage visitors to pay the full freight by saying things like "you must realize it is very expensive to run the museum." He will also say that in 2010-2011 the term on the sign was changed from "suggested" to "recommended" because administrators believed it was a stronger word that would encourage people to pay more.
The Met's Holzer denied the former employee's allegations. He also said the basis for the lawsuit -- that admission is intended to be free -- is wrong because the state law the plaintiffs cited has been superseded many times and the city approved pay-what-you-wish admissions in 1970.
"The idea that the museum is free to everyone who doesn't wish to pay has not been in force for nearly 40 years," Holzer said, adding, "Yes, you do have to pay something."
As to the wording change on the sign, he said the museum "actually thought at the time, and still thinks, that `recommended' is softer than `suggested,' so the former employee is quite wrong here."
New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs agreed to the museum's request in 1970 for a general admission as long as the amount was left up to individuals and that the signage reflected that. Similar arrangements are in place for other cultural institutions that operate on city-owned land and property and receive support from the city, such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum. It's also a model that's been replicated in other cities.
The Metropolitan Museum is one of the world's richest cultural institutions, with a $2.58 billion investment portfolio, and isn't reliant on admissions fees to pay the majority of its bills. Only about 11 percent of the museum's operating expenses were covered by admissions charges in the 2012 fiscal year. As a nonprofit organization, the museum pays no income taxes.
Holzer also noted that in the past fiscal year, 41 percent of visitors to the Met paid the full recommended admission price -- $25 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students.
A random sampling of visitors leaving the museum found that there was a general awareness that "recommended" implied you could pay less than the posted price.
But Dan Larson and his son Jake, visiting the museum last week from Duluth, Minn., were unaware there was any room to negotiate the admission price. They paid the full $25 each for adult tickets.
"My understanding was you pay the recommended price," said Larson, 50. "That's clearly not displayed."
Alexander Kulessa, a 23-year-old university student from Germany, said friends who had previously visited New York tipped him off about the admission fee.
"They said, 'Don't pay $25,'" said Kulessa. "They said it will be written everywhere to pay $25, but you don't have to pay that. You don't even have to pay the student price."
For Colette Leger, a tourist from Toronto who visited the museum with her teenage daughter, paying the full $25 was worth every penny.
"It's a beautiful museum and I was happy to pay," she said.