Friday, May 28, 2010

Museum cuts and directors’ salaries – are they related?

An article this week in the Chicago Tribune reported that the Art Institute of Chicago has laid off 65 staff, on top of the 22 it laid off last June. The director James Cuno, one of the giants of the US art scene, has cited the almost 25% cut in endowment income as the cause of such, putting the Art Institute in the same group as the mega rich Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which have laid off staff and cut programs in the last year.

It illustrates the very different form of funding that the US museum/gallery scene lives off, when compared to the UK and Australian situation. Endowments resulting from philanthropic giving have long been the main stay of US museum funding, a model eyed with envy from elsewhere, where there is nothing like the level of philanthropic giving to the arts. But it has a downside, namely when those endowments are linked to the stockmarket and a little matter of a GFC comes barrelling into town.

Across the Atlantic the UK museum sector which relies predominately on public sector funding has fared better so far. They of course are wondering what now happens with the new coalition government in power, but the Conservatives went to the general election proclaiming in David Cameron’s words ‘ Our culture is second to none’. Nick Clegg ( now Deputy PM) had stronger words ‘ Arts funding is a duty not an option for any government’, and even the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne got in on the act speaking at the Tate last December, when he said ’The arts play a vital role in our communities, helping to bind people together and create real social value.’ Whilst it is clear there will be cuts to their funding of as much as 20% , as no part of the UK ‘s public sector will be able to avoid such if the UK £160 billion deficit is going to have any chance of being reduced, there are also ways in which this may be ameliorated. The National Lottery was set up to fund heritage, the arts, sport and charities, and although its funds have been siphoned off to all sorts of other causes given its phenomenal success, there are signs that the government will restore it to its original purpose. There is also talk of a Museums and Heritage Bill which would give national museums greater financial independence.

But there are swings and round abouts with such matters and the result of the massive endowments that US museum directors have to manage means they also (by UK and Australian standards) can earn massive salaries. James Cuno earned US$626,000 last year up 46% from the previous one, no doubt so he didn’t get left behind his colleagues, such as Boston Museum of Fine Arts director, Malcolm Rogers on $719,000 or the Met’s Phillipe de Montebello ( since retired) on $818,000. But they are eclipsed by the star of the show, Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s MOMA, who earned $1.32 million last year ( salary $956,000, ‘retention bonus’ $191,000, ‘performance bonus’ $200,000, pension $262,000 plus rent free condo benefit valued at $336,000) , and this included a voluntary pay cut due to the recession taking his earnings down from, wait for it, $1.95 million the previous year.

So it’s not entirely surprising, returning to the Chicago Art Institute, that a blog comment on the article reads "When the director is making over $700,000 a year, and accepts a pay raise when the rest of the staff goes for years without raises, and scores of employees are losing their jobs, the whole thing seems shameful and embarrassing".

Haven’t I heard that comment from the corporate world recently?

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