Museum boss salaries: Reduced but still an issue amid wider cutbacks
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Museum boss salaries: Reduced but still an issue amid wider cutbacks
Glenn Lowry, center, who leads the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, March 31, 2019. Lowry has the highest compensation package of any New York City museum leader, according to tax filings from last year. Amy Lombard/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Many of New York’s museum leaders have taken pay cuts to offset some of the financial damage their institutions are suffering from their COVID-related closures. But at a time when museums are facing their most severe financial downturn in decades, one that has led some to make painful cuts in staff, critics are questioning whether such reductions go far enough.

At the Guggenheim, the director, Richard Armstrong, took a 25% cut in pay. But the group A Better Guggenheim — made up of current and former staff members — in a July 23 Instagram post called on Armstrong, who earned $1.4 million a year in compensation in 2018, to take a deeper cut “instead of continuing to target the museum’s most vulnerable staff” with furloughs.

In June, after the Asia Society considered furloughs that were later avoided, staff members complained in a letter to the board that the 50% pay cut taken by its president and chief executive, Josette Sheeran, who earned $937,000 in compensation last year, was insufficient.

A union leader who represents workers at the New Museum and other institutions said in an interview that it is difficult for museum workers to stomach layoffs when executive salaries still run so high.

“When institutions shed these people,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of the union, Local 2110, “and say, ‘We can’t help it because there is a pandemic and we’re not open and we’re losing all of this revenue,’ and then the top guys continue to be in place and earning like a million dollars a year, it’s very concerning.”

The pay disparity issue, already simmering in the museum world last year, has bubbled up since the pandemic as critics question whether museums should further curtail executive pay and draw on their endowments to keep their staffs employed.

Though museum leaders run large organizations that mirror corporations in their complexity, they are also charities, buoyed by special tax breaks that carry with them additional scrutiny, especially when it comes to compensation.

The salaries of museum directors have to be listed on the institution’s tax returns, which show that leaders of a half-dozen major institutions in New York received annual pay packages last year of $1 million or more, even as low-level employees earn as little as $35,000.

“The differentials are too large,” said James Abruzzo, a nonprofit compensation consultant. “Boards need to take a more valued approach to how their institutions treat their people.”

Of particular note in a year when the killing of George Floyd has led museums to confront accusations of institutional racism, many of the staff reductions have come from the lower-paid ranks where largely white-led institutions have traditionally displayed the most diversity in hiring.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, where the workforce is 43% nonwhite, some 48% of the 400 staff members cut since March have been people of color.

Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive, who earned $1.25 million in compensation last year, has taken a 20% pay cut this year. His compensation had risen by 24% from 2018 to 2019, after he became CEO and took on increased responsibilities as the top boss of a museum with total expenses of $491 million last year.

At Asia Society, the executive vice president, Tom Nagorski, defended Sheeran’s compensation, saying that 20% of it is based on fulfillment of annual performance goals. He noted that the organization received government loans that allowed it to avoid eliminating workers.

Even before the pandemic, the issue of pay disparity had been percolating at cultural institutions. Last year, arts workers across the country began to anonymously post their job titles and salaries, alongside those of museum officials, in a spreadsheet meant to call attention to the issue.

“We have an inequity in our compensation schemes,” said Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, who has run several major arts institutions. “Where there is a disproportionate salary for the leader of large institutions, it arises from the fact that boards are so nervous, because they don’t know how to run these institutions themselves.”

To be sure, good arts executives are considered hard to find, so successful ones tend to be handsomely rewarded. In addition, many trustees are also highly compensated chief executives, for whom the pay level of a museum director may not register as significant compared to their own earnings.

In 2018, Lonti Ebers, a philanthropist, quit the board of the New Museum when the director, Lisa Phillips, sought to negotiate a larger compensation package, according to two people she has spoken to about it.

Ebers declined to comment for this article, but the two people she spoke to said she had argued that Phillips’ compensation, a total of $768,000 last year, was high in relation to the museum’s operating budget — $17 million last year — and in relation to the earnings of other employees.

But the New Museum said Phillips’ contract had been reviewed in 2018 by an independent compensation consultant. James-Keith Brown, the board president, said it “reflects both industry norms and the value she brings to the museum through her experience, talent, and leadership.”

The museum said that Phillips has taken a 30% reduction in pay from April 1 through June 2021 and that her salary has not increased since 2015.

It was partly concerns about pay fairness that helped fuel the creation of a union at the New Museum last year. During negotiations, workers argued for a base salary of $51,000 a year. The museum ultimately agreed to $46,000.

“Many of us not were not able to survive on our full-time salaries,” said Dana Kopel, who helped organize the union and was laid off in June. “This is especially egregious when the director is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

“The ease with which we unionized,” said Kopel, who had earned $60,000 a year as senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum, “speaks to the frustration.”

The union recently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that “layoffs have been discriminatory and retaliatory, targeting vocal union supporters and decimating our bargaining unit.”

Phillips, who opposed the unionization, said of the union’s recently filed complaint: “We don’t believe this charge has merit.”

Having furloughed 41 staff members, the museum recently announced that it will bring back 23 of them (the rest were laid off).

“These unprecedented times have called for tough decisions,” Phillips said in an Aug. 4 email to the staff, “and losing staff has been the most difficult.”

At the Museum of Modern Art, the compensation package for the director, Glenn Lowry, topped $5 million last year, though the amount was an anomaly — boosted by a one-time infusion of $3 million in retirement plan payments that had been earned over the life of his five-year employment contract.

Still, even without the retirement plan money, Lowry’s compensation for last year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, topped $2.3 million, the most of any museum director in New York.

A spokeswoman for the museum said Lowry had taken a pay cut this year, though she would not specify what percentage.

As director of MoMA for the past 25 years, Lowry has come to be valued by the museum’s board for seeing the institution with a $267 million budget and 840 employees through an extraordinary period of growth that includes two major building expansions and annual attendance that has mushroomed to nearly 3 million.

The museum has not laid off full-time staff as a response to the pandemic, but in April, it terminated all contracts with its 85 freelance education workers, some of whom had worked for the museum for more than a decade.

The decision led more than 160 employees in May to sign a letter of complaint to Lowry, in which they expressed their concern for the terminated workers but also “for MoMA’s commitment to its stated mission as an educational institution first and foremost.”

At the Guggenheim on Tuesday, members of the museum’s union wrote on Twitter, “The @Guggenheim admin consistently cries about the lack of financial resources, but never shy away from paying bloated salaries to execs and paying lawyers for work their execs should be able to do.”

The museum responded in a statement that said, “We are committed to building a Guggenheim that can sustainably operate for generations to come.” It said that through 2021, pay reductions will range from 5% to 25% for staff making over $80,000 per year, including the director.

Even in cases where further cuts in executive pay would not do much to change a museum’s bottom line, the optics of lower-paid workers getting cut while top salaries stay high is not helpful for institutions, said one expert.

“This is a let-them-eat-cake syndrome,” said Daniel L. Kurtz, an attorney specializing in nonprofits. “Given issues of pay equity and the challenging economic times, it seems out of touch.”

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