Since the web version of Weinberger’s article (http://articles.boston.com/2012-02-19/magazine/31070140_1_museums-mfa-malcolm-rogers#.T0Zyam5G4PI.tumblr) doesn’t allow for comments, here’s my response as a letter I sent to the Editor of the Boston Globe.
To the Editor:
I am writing in response to Eric Weinberger’s February 19th article, “What the MFA Owes Boston.” Mr. Weinberger’s commentary is the epitome of what is wrong with social and political conversation today: when faced with a significant challenging societal problem, and maintaining a clear opinion but few facts to support the opinion, the commentator focuses on an individual to demonize and de-value, and incorrectly asserts “facts” which would seem reasonable, if not for the fact that they are incorrect.
The core issue is not unique to Boston: City governments are cash strapped; there are non-profits not subject to property taxes, but that utilize the city services property taxes are generally intended to fund. I’m the Managing Director of a non-profit theatre company in New York City. We have similar problems here, where the two largest property owners in the city are Columbia University and the Catholic Church. I understand the challenge. I don’t claim to have the answer, but recognize it as a serious problem that must be met with serious conversation by serious people from both the non-profit world and the civic leadership in the cities they call home.
Mr. Weinberger’s solution is that Malcom Rogers, the CEO of the MFA, who makes “a corporate CEO salary” should front the city’s request for a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) out of his own deep pockets. The problems with this solution are manifold, but I’ll focus on the assertion of incorrect facts that seem reasonable and hence believable: I grant that Mr. Rogers’ salary of $600,000 seems like a tidy sum, but it does not even approach a corporate CEO salary. Median salary for a Fortune 500 CEO as a percentage of earnings hit their historic low in 2007 at 1.6%. Mr. Rogers’ 2010 salary represents less than ½ of 1% of his institution’s earnings.
Mr. Weinberger goes on to demonize Mr. Rogers, implying some level of greed at accepting this princely sum when “people who run the great museums and universities would likely take jobs for half the wage because, actually, they do love museums and universities.” So, in other words, because non-profit managers get to do work about which they are passionate, they are or inherently should be willing to work for sub-market value. And to be clear again, at 1/3 the compensation rate of a corporate CEO, what might seem like a lot of money is a severely sub-market wage. And for that he not only had the joy of working at something that he presumably loves to do, but the responsibility to raise almost $50 million in that year alone to help keep the doors of the MFA open, and manage the lives and livelihoods of the more that 1,000 area residents who work at the MFA.
Now, I’m not trying to throw a pity party here for Mr. Rogers. Yes, he makes a lot of money. No, I have not the least idea whether he’s any good at his job. But the suggestion that he makes so much that he should simply cough up a quarter of a million dollars to the city is not only obscene, it de-values Mr. Rogers, the Institution he serves and, by extension, the arts as a whole. ‘He’s not really worth what he makes so he should give the money away… and by the way, why do they pay him so much when he gets to spend his day around all those pictures… they’re so pretty. It must be fun.’
The reason many arts organizations are given non-profit status is because of a civic and educative value which was once viewed of sufficient social importance to be consecrated into the federal tax code. The reason non-profits are required to maintain boards of directors is because they are viewed legally as being public trusts— existing for the benefit of the community.
As a society, we have strayed woefully far from that understanding of the value of the arts in civil society- not as a means of entertainment, but as a means of building continuity, connection and empathy. And every time someone looks at an artist— or at an arts administrator who toils to give that artist a forum for their work to be seen or heard—and says “you make how much? Surely you’d do it for less since you get to be an artist,” we stray a step further away.
So, I don’t have the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of balancing a municipality’s monetary needs with it’s civic and cultural needs. Perhaps we start with both sides accepting that both monetarily and culturally, we’re talking about needs, not wants or whims. And maybe next, the people on either side of the discussion recognize that the person on the other side probably makes what they make because they’re good at what they do, and that has real value.