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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why It Matters How the Director of an Art Museum Is Paid

posted by on February 27 at 11:40 AM

Once during a fellowship with other arts journalists in Washington, D.C., a writer for the Chicago Tribune remarked that what’s challenging about arts reporting is finding the other side.

The National Endowment for the Arts is not a regulator for the field like, say, the Environmental Protection Agency is for its purview, and there are really no non-governmental organizations regulating the activities of museums. The American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors presumably ought to provide checks and balances, but the truth is that they have never been as powerful as the museums themselves. They also refuse to speak publicly about individual museums, and sometimes they don’t react at all, or very slowly, to apparent violations of ethics.

The only organization that occasionally gets involved as a watchdog is the Internal Revenue Service, because IRS laws govern certain aspects of nonprofits, and most museums are nonprofits. One of those aspects is compensation. It’s hard to tell what compels the IRS to get involved, or even when it gets involved—it also does not discuss individual taxpayers publicly. (When I reported that the Museum of Glass in Tacoma was paying its director far above her colleagues at similar museums and in fact more than the vice president of the United States was making, the IRS didn’t seem to get involved, but the director, Josi Callan, left not long after and her successor’s salary was lower; Callan is now heading up EMP.)

On Feb. 16, Stephanie Strom of the NYT reported that Glenn Lowry, the highly paid director of the Museum of Modern Art, was also making millions on the side from a fund directly supported by a few powerful trustees.

Today, Richard Lacayo over at Time details a real-world example of how the trustees’ influence may have been felt in the galleries: the replacement of a lightweight Signac portrait that just happens to be a fractional gift of David Rockefeller, one of the powerful trustees, for Cezanne’s The Bather in “first position” in the galleries—starting the story of modern art, in other words.

The Signac:

The Cezanne:

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Isn't it the public's responsibility to monitor the organizations that they hold in trust? Anyone can check the top salaries of non-profit employees. It is public record and easily accessed through Does the VP of the United States get paid a salary appropriate to his position? Why are we all pissed off that people who work their asses off for non-profit organizations get paid an appropriate wage? Maybe if we compensate them competitively we can keep them in the field rather than watching all of the talent forced into the private sector. Perhaps the problem isn't with the director's salary but with the lack of oversight on the part of the board. Isn't it their job to make sure that the organization is living up to it's public responsibilities? To make sure the managers are earning their salaries? If you feel someone is not "earning their keep" perhaps you should direct your ire at the people who set those salaries and hire the employees. These "volunteers" have more of a responsibility than cutting checks at black tie galas and getting their name in program or on a wall. I would love to see an article about the true leadership gap rather than yet another misplaced attack on the managers.

Posted by littlejilm | February 27, 2007 11:55 AM

Why is "fractional donating" even allowed? Tax scam is all it is, so Rockefeller can hold on to more of his unearned wealth.

That Signac is uglier than sin. A "start in the story" of stupid fucking hippie art, maybe. The article says it's not there anymore.

Posted by Fnarf | February 27, 2007 12:07 PM

That's a sexy Cezanne.

Posted by Gitai | February 27, 2007 3:18 PM

Oh.. dear.. a conflict of interest in the art world??? who would have thunk it. I will say one possitive thing about the Signac.. it is bizarre.. and more cutting edge for it's day than the Cezanne. I wouldn't call it a better painting however.

Posted by gdfather | February 27, 2007 3:32 PM

Actually, regulation of non-profits usually falls in the province of state attorneys general. So MOMA's regulator in chief is the NY AG. Abuse of non-profit tax status is the IRS's gig.

Now, I wonder ... how many of those curators went to Williams College???

Posted by jonathan | February 27, 2007 10:21 PM

In fact, you'll note, in the NYT story you link, that the information about Lowry came to light after inquiries by the NY AG.

I'll bet they are also looking into payola at the Met.

God-damned Williams art mafia... Incompetent and wracked by cupidity.

Posted by jonathan | February 27, 2007 10:27 PM

Jen, when you are done with Mathew Kangas, could you write about Josi Callan again? Her salary is even more at EMP than what she was making at MoG because she successfully kissed Paul Allen’s ass. She has been keeping her awful reputation torturing employees, damaging organization, manipulating with favoritism including hiring her friends as directors. Especially one director is an owner of a design firm that EMP contracts with. This is clearly ethically wrong. So many people will appreciate it if you could reveal real stories with Josi Callan to help getting rid of her from the museum world forever.

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