Grey Room

The Private Museum Goes Public: An American Tale of Death and Taxes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anne Hilker

Visitors viewing Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, ca. 1900. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.


Today, museums in the United States are recognized as educational, and gifts to them are tax-deductible. As a result, U.S. museums deviate dramatically from their European predecessors: they are fundamentally private institutions supported only partially and indirectly by the government—by way of tax deductions. But that result was not inevitable. Rather, it arose in the early twentieth century from a confrontation between the Met and New York State’s tax authority. Obscured now, that decision represented the convergence of changing philanthropic goals, theories of pedagogy, and the perceived importance of museums. This article considers the origins—and legacies—of that decree.