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The Met Mess: Two Toxic Articles Make Bad Situation Worse

In the problematic tradition of kick-’em-while-they’re-down, the NY Post and Vanity Fair magazine have opted for tabloid sensationalism with headlines about the Metropolitan Museum’s financial predicament that are more click-worthy than praiseworthy.

Money-Losing Met Hands Execs Hefty Raises is the title for Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein‘s Post piece. They reported last week that “records show” the Metropolitan Museum’s top brass were getting “hefty pay raises and six-figure bonuses…despite a looming deficit that threatened to reach $40 million.”

Tom Campbell, speaking last fall at the Met Breuer
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That’s a misleading description of what the “records show.” Not explained in the Post’s attempt to create a compensation sensation is that the salaries and bonuses referred to in the article were paid before detailed budgetary analysis revealed that major cutbacks (including staff reductions) were essential to preclude a $40-million deficit in future years.

What’s more, according to a letter sent last week to the Met’s senior management (a copy of which was provided to me by Kenneth Weine, the museum’s new chief communications officer, “voluntary pay cuts [not “hefty pay raises”] were taken by [Met director] Tom Campbell, [president] Dan Weiss, and other senior staff members” once the severity of the Met’s financial crisis became clear last spring.

For reasons that I detailed in my 2009 post—Is Michael Govan Worth a Million Bucks? (answered by me in the affirmative)—I believe that high pay for high-performing leaders of major cultural institutions is not only warranted but necessary to attract and retain top talent.

That said, the Met’s top brass’ willingness to take (unspecified) voluntary pay cuts showed that they understood the bad optics of continuing to collect their usual compensation while staffers were being let go and the benefits of those remaining were being cut—all a consequence, at least in part, of deficient management. The optics would have been better if the museum hadn’t stonewalled my request for details about the size of those voluntary pay cuts: Were they merely token gestures or significant? (Guess we’ll have to wait for next year’s 990.)

Below is the chart of compensation for top staff from the museum’s Form 990 tax return for FY 2016, ending last June (as shown on p. 55 in the linked PDF). You can magnify the fine print, or view it more clearly at the link. According to the letter sent to the Met’s staffers, these figures show executive compensation for calendar year 2015, not fiscal year 2016. “It was after this time period, in the spring of 2016,” according to the letter, “that we found it necessary to impose significant cost-cutting.”

Many of those listed below (including Emily Rafferty, Jennifer Russell, Harold Holzer, Olena Paslawsky, Nina Diefenbach and Elyse Topalian) have since left the museum. Rafferty retired from the Met presidency in spring 2015, after having received a hefty “retention payment” of $1.58 million (bringing her total 2015 compensation to $2.28 million). I believe that’s a sum promised to her for remaining at the Met for a specified number of years, but Weine declined to answer my repeated request for confirmation of this.

More damaging than the Post piece, because it appears in a high-profile national publication, is William Cohan‘s Inside a Met Director’s Shocking Exit and the Billion-Dollar Battle for the Museum’s Future for the April issue of Vanity Fair (online now).

“Billion-dollar battle”? Sounds juicy. But the only “billions” in this exposé manqué are in the $2.52-billion endowment (as reported on the museum’s Form 990). There’s no “battle” over it—just a faltering effort to preserve it.

Art cognoscenti may remember Cohan as the author of an award-winning 2010 piece in ARTnews about the controversy over the authenticity of 74 “recently discovered” plaster casts of Degas sculptures. I’ll have more about this finance writer’s latest foray into the artworld, coming soon.

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