Botanical Garden, Wave Hill, Bronx Zoo: Should they be free?

Free Admission campaign says 17 tax-subsidized attractions should be free for all New Yorkers


New York City residents pay a billion dollars in tax subsidies every year to 17 institutions, according to the Free Admission campaign, with $701.1 million apparently going to free rent.

So the group asks if New York City residents should have free access to these institutions.

The Free Admission campaign has been fighting for New Yorker’s rights to free access to several New York institutions, including museums, zoos, performing arts and science centers, gardens and aquariums. It all stems from public-private partnership terms that were made over 150 years ago.

When Andrew Green, comptroller of New York City, laid out plans in the mid-1800s for the American Museum of Natural History, it was decided that the lands would be granted free rent with the trade-off that New Yorkers could have free access.

Through the years the Park Education Campus that natural history museum fell under were amended to include several other institutions, all with similar deals of free rent for free public access.

More than a century later and the terms of those agreements set forth do not seem to be observed.

The Bronx Zoo, for example, is supposed to be free to the public at least three days a week, according to the Free Admission site. However, the zoo does offer free admission on Wednesdays. Tickets must be reserved in advance online and it doesn’t grant visitors free access to all rides and attractions.

The 1965 Wave Hill agreement states: “All professors and teachers of the public schools of the city or other institutions of learning in said city in which instruction is given free of charge shall be admitted to Wave hill for independent and individual study, research and investigation free of any charge therefore.”

Once again this is not to the case today, with tickets going $10 for adults and $4 for children between 6 and 18.

The New York Botanical Garden was intended to permit classes from primary and secondary schools to be admitted free of charge, and also have a suggested fee that visitors could pay, according to the Free Admission site.

Instead today there is no suggested fee listed on the website where you can purchase tickets and the “All Garden Pass” is $31 for students. New York residents can enter the park for free anytime on Wednesday, although grounds admission does not include admission to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, special exhibitions, or tram tour.

There is a Bronx Neighbors Program that allows Bronx residents to enter free of charge, although once again with no free admission to the conservatory, special exhibitions, or tram tour.

When asked about the bill by The Riverdale Press, officials from the botanical garden stated: “The New York Botanical Garden is committed to sharing our beautiful grounds, compelling exhibitions, and robust educational offerings with as many people as possible, especially among our local New York City and Bronx communities.”

They say they adhere to the laws and regulations of New York state and New York City, operating under the jurisdiction of the city’s cultural affairs department since the agency was formed in 1962. These policies include admission fees, free hours, and hours of operations, which are approved by cultural affairs for each of its institutions.

“In order to maintain our expansive grounds and offerings, including our vast botanical collections and exhibitions, scientific research, and educational programs for all ages, we rely on private donations, investments, and public funding, as well as ticket revenue from visitors,” the botanical garden stated in an email.

Martha Gellens, associate director of marketing and communications of Wave Hill, said that because the gardens are a New York City property, they are governed by the cultural affairs department, similar to the New York Botanical Garden. Cultural affairs is the one who allows Thursday to be free of charge, for example.

The Bronx Zoo could not be reached for comment.

The Free Admission campaign’s goal is to raise awareness to city residents’ rights to free access and ensure the laws set out 150 years ago are being followed.

The campaign worked with Assemblyman Charles Fall  of Staten Island and state Sen. Cordell Cleare of Harlem, in introducing two bills related to the free admission cause.

The Senate bill would: “Direct the Department of Economic Development, in consultation with various departments and offices, to conduct a study regarding increasing public access to museums in New York state; directs a report on such study to be submitted no later than one year after the effective date.”

The justification for Cordell Cleare’s sponsored bill reads that New York residents deserve access to the institutions free of charge and “the time is ripe for our state legislators to ensure that $1 billion annually is invested according to the law and in support of New York’s education excellence and prosperity.”

The bill is currently in committee.

The campaign currently has a petition in support of the bill that has includes 700 signatories.  Founder of the Free Admission campaign, Pat Nicholson, described the public-private partnership structure put in place in the mid-1800s.

“The Central Park in order to be able to be funded by the public first would have to provide a public purpose and that public purpose was instruction and recreation because the institutions were going to be inside of a park,” Nicholson said.

On the other hand, the institutions were supposed to get buildings built by and owned by the city rent-free. The laws were put in place in the state legislature, Nicholson explained, because the philanthropists and industrialists of the time were uncomfortable with Tammany Hall’s oversight, causing the laws to be passed and enacted.

Despite the laws being amended and never being repealed in the last 150 years, “no administration has ever taken the responsibility to codify and interpret what the laws meant,” she said.

It was time for a study bill to be put in place, Nicholson said, because they could no longer use the courts. She said to some extent there is a problem in New York where the local governments won’t do the necessary work to codify the terms of free admission for New York residents.

She is not arguing for anything but for the study bill to allow for an analysis of what rights are for New York residents, how they’re being enforced, and for the conversation after: “Do we change it?”

It is the agreements that allow the institutions more favorable ability to manage and control their entrance fees despite the state laws prohibiting them to do so, she says.

Nicholson emphasized these laws would only be for 8 million people in New York City. She talked about how among the 17 institutions they’ve amassed investment portfolios and endowments of $10 billion.

“The contract is they’re living there,” Nicholson said. “They’re residing there, and showing their wares and actually using the saved rent to grow their collections while they’re denying New Yorkers our consideration. They live with free rent, and we don’t get our rights to free access.

“It’s a broken contract.”

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he hadn’t heard of the bill until asked about it by a reporter. He warned, however, that Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed similar bills last year. He does not think the institutions should be free for New York residents, but does not object to the study being looked at.

He also said he doubted that institutions received a billion in rent and that he wasn’t sure if it would be possible to apply an entry fee to just non-residents.

Dinowitz doesn’t think anyone who can’t afford to go these institutions should be left out. But he doesn’t think New York residents with plenty of means to pay should be able to just walk in for free.

“Who’s going to cover the cost of these institutions, if not the users?” he asked.

free rent, New York Botanical Garden, Wave Hill, Bronx Zoo, Free Admission, Martha Gellens, Pat Nicholson, Jeffrey Dinowitz