Today, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Malcolm Rogers, is pursuing a vigorous campaign against Boston’s push to sharply increase “voluntary” payments from nonprofits that don’t pay property taxes – a significant problem in a place so full of museums and universities that more than half of the property is untaxable. The MFA’s payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) were only $55,000 last year, but Boston has asked for $250,000 this year and about $1 million four years from now. Without using the word, Rogers, in a column for The Art Newspaper last month, cries philistinism. He says the MFA already provides a roughly $2.1 million annual benefit to the city – lots of free admissions and education programs that would be jeopardized if he has to write big checks – and that Boston, unlike New York and Chicago, gives its museum no money. It is ominous when governments see “cultural organizations as a source of revenue,” Rogers writes, “rather than as an invaluable resource for the communities they serve.” His article is called “Don’t Kill the Goose.”
Rogers’s argument is persuasive but not credible. When one’s pay to run a nonprofit was nearly $600,000 in fiscal 2010 (plus $167,000 in benefits), campaigning against your cash-strapped host city is probably bad form. Indeed, the quarter-million payment could come straight from his pocket, leaving a still-handsome salary that, really, he should be contented with. After all, he chose museums, not finance, as his vocation, making the kind of trade-off familiar to teachers and social workers. If one desires to work among some of the most sublime expressions of the human spirit, one may have to accept one won’t earn so much for it.
None of this is against the MFA, which I enjoy so much that last year I applied for a job there (it was eventually filled by a superior candidate). Nor is it against Rogers, who may well be the greatest museum director, living or dead, in the history of Western museums. All of the people in positions like Rogers’s are hugely overpaid. They try to have their cake and eat it, too.
This happens when an organization claims it is a mere nonprofit, yet that it needs to pay its leader a corporate CEO salary. The most common refrain is: If we don’t pay these salaries, we won’t get the best people. But this is rarely true. The people who run the great museums and universities would likely take jobs for half the wage because, actually, they do love museums and universities, and nothing better satisfies their lifelong passion than a top job. Still, if offered a CEO’s salary, who is going to turn it down?
But you can’t insist you must offer CEO salaries for executives, then say you can’t pay corporate prices for city services. In a companion piece to his essay, Rogers says the MFA has served New England for 140 years “at no cost whatsoever to that community.” Yet the streets around the museum are cleaned, repaired, and plowed; Boston police, firefighters, and EMTs respond to calls. You can’t be willing to pay for the glamorous president-figure but not for the city that has been part of your very identity since the beginning.
With their bloated salaries, nonprofit CEOs have become major donors to their own institutions. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, earned $1.3 million in 2009; she and her husband have donated at least $250,000 to Penn. Rogers himself is listed as a major donor to the MFA, with a gift in the $100,000-$250,000 range in 2010 and, more staggering, $1 million to $5 million in 2011. His generosity makes one a little embarrassed, perhaps, to be using him as an example of a deleterious trend – for all we know, he already donates all his salary to the museum. But noblesse oblige is further confirmation that museum directors and university presidents have joined the philanthropic elite.
In the meantime, museums like the MFA are replete with security guards, cleaners, educators, and junior curators, who each earn a fraction of the big boss’s salary. In his article, Rogers undermines his employees by threatening their jobs: “The PILOT scheme will simply mean cuts in our outreach programs and a reduction in jobs (40 percent of the museum’s workforce of 708 . . . are residents of Boston).” This talk cannot be good for morale, either.
What should Rogers do? My own modest suggestion is that he announce he’ll cover the extra $195,000 to save jobs and programs at the museum this year, but that he wants real conversations with the city before coughing up anything like $1 million. He’ll become a populist hero, a new figure of respect for the Occupy era, the goose who put the knife to his neck to draw blood, for the sake of attention, but stopped short of cutting off his head.
Cambridge-based writer Eric Weinberger is a longtime Boston Globe contributor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.