The Playgoer: Our Nonprofit-Theatre CEO's

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Our Nonprofit-Theatre CEO's

"I receive a very handsome salary and worked 35 years to get it,'' said [Andre] Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater, who drew no salary when he began working at tiny nonprofits in the 1970s. "The idea that because we're nonprofit we shouldn't earn a decent living is ludicrous. We're the CEOs of a company with a budget of about $35 million."
Isaac thankfully points us to an detailed survey by Bloomberg's Philip Boroff of Artistic Director salaries. While Isaac's right that he and I and others in our beloved "theatresphere" were on this story months ago, it's still nice to see someone throwing their full journalistic resources at it.

I certainly don't begrudge Mr. Bishop his expectation to be compensated on a par with the CEO of any other huge nonprofit--like a museum or symphony orchestra. (And obviously no mere theatre AD will ever approach something like the Metropolitan Museum's Philipe De Montebello, for instance.) One could even argue that monetary respect for the theatre's institutional leaders translates into respect for the field as a whole.

One could argue that. But I still don't see that happening.

Still, the mere use of the term "CEO" does put the job in a new context, doesn't it. At least, those positions at the head of such huge theatres in this town as Lincoln Center, the Public, the Roundabout, and Manhattan Theatre Club--all of whose AD's, Boroff reports, make well into the 6 figures. In fact, poor Eustis is the only one of that club not making a half-mil! And, forget New York: Joe Dowling at the Guthrie is pulling in close to 700 G's.

Isaac, though, shifts the focus to the p.o.v. of the plebes working in the trenches of these institutions.
I have a friend who works for a theater.[...] He had to fight for a standard of living wage increase last year because the theater has run deficits for years. Okay, understandable, we have hard times, you care about your company, you make sacrifices. But... and I'm sure you've already guessed what the kicker is here... they're building a multimillion dollar new space. Even though they're arguing they can't afford to pay their staff a decent wage. And it's not like they're saying "hey, included in this capital campaign is a wage increase for you guys, so just hold on, its coming". They're saying "we can't give you this because times are tight".
[...]
This is yet another way that theater has become america. We expect those at the bottom to take huge sacrifices and remain in it for "the love of what you do" or because "it's a good cause" while people at the top make significantly more money. And in theater, that significantly more still pales in comparison to what they'd make managing companies of the same size outside of the art form.
The "theatre failed america reference" indeed refers to Mike Daisey's polemic against--among other things--the increased overvaluing of real estate over people, of management over artists.

This built-in expectation that the grunts will continue to watch the income gap between staffer and leadership grow is crucial to our problems. Because it's true--Andre Bishop, Todd Haimes, many of these folks did indeed work for nothing while they grew their original companies. And they do deserve some comfort, some security, and, sure, some "reward," after all that.

But the feeling many get from that generation so often now is: "Hey, I dealt with it back then. So can you." Not in a mean way. But actually as if it's "character building," and all that. Or it's just the sorry reality, and always will be, given how much our culture shits on the theatre.

Keep in mind, when this generation of producers started out in the 60s and 70s, one could still rent an apartment in NYC--even Manhattan--for $200 a month. Or less. When the subway was a quarter. And even Broadway tickets were on average were under $40.

How anyone breaks into the theatre in this town today on a $10,000-$20,000 a year stipend and survives for more than a few years--absent a trust fund--is a miracle.

So all I'll say is: if our theaters really want there be a future generation of artistic directors, producers, dramaturgs they better invest in them.

17 comments:

RLewis said...

gosh it's great to have you back.

The Esocritic said...

Does anyone remember some years ago when the CEO of the American Red Cross resigned after one year and received a $1 million payout? There was an outcry over that as there was several years prior when the Executive Director of the United Way was forced out over a perks and compensation scandal. And I can remember another one related to the Connecticut-based Save the Children not too long ago.

All of the above are nationally-organized charities with an international reach. They do not operate within and for a single city. If the CEO of the Red Cross is not expected to be a millionaire, why would we allow our tax dollars to subsidize nonprofit regional theaters that enable their leadership to live in excess?

Someone should inform Mr. Bishop that a decent living does not start at a quarter mil, especially in the nonprofit world. To compare his position with that of a CEO in the private sector is a red herring.

After all, a private corporation with a $35 million budget (and much less in earned income) would not classify as a major enterprise.

Nonprofit leaders need to be compared with other nonprofit leaders, in terms of size and budget of the organization, not on an industry-by-industry basis. It's gauge vs. gouge. If boards have to justify why their CEO is being paid more than the CEO of a larger nonprofit with a bigger budget, then we can attain a reliable gauge. By saying, "well, this is what other ADs get," then we just get gouged.

Right now a lot of the theaters in the profile are using their nonprofit exemptions to produce in the commercial theater. That is not part of their mission. It's rather like the Red Cross selling you blood or the Girl Scouts putting the cookie fund in the stock market.

When it pays off, they feel that it justifies a pay increase or a new building. In reality it should justify a redefinition of their tax-exempt status or a dividend to the tax payers of their respective city and state.

Hotspur said...

I agree that there's a problem with treating non-profit corporations like for-profit ones. But I see a deeper problem in how the corporate structure is venerated in the US.

Yeah, I'm talking about redistribution of wealth. The fallacy in Bishop's claim that ADs deserve to be treated like CEOs is that CEOs deserve the golden treatment they get.

Ken said...

I wouldn't begrudge Andre Bishop a healthy salary, considering the size and impact of the institution he leads. But the overwhelming majority of theater artists do not earn a living wage from any of their theater activities. We have a nation of playwrights/directors/actors temping at ad agencies, publishing houses, waiting tables, etc. Why is it only administrators of theater are seen as deserving of a steady salary and official title, and not the creators of theater?

The Playgoer said...

Thanks for these comments.

Just to add to my last point up there....

Here's some other things to consider about the different economic landscape for young theatre artists now versus 30-40 yrs ago.

-Think about TUITION costs. Back then, I wouldn't assume all theatre artists even went to college. If they did, they obviously didn't have to pay $40,000+ a year and graduate already six figures in debt.

-Thank about GRADUATE school tuition. As misguided as they may be, many of today's young theatre folk feel pressured or encouraged to pile on MORE educational loans to get an MFA. Not all these programs a free rides, you know. So we've got not just actors, but directors, designers, dramaturgs, and, yes, even producers and theatre managers out there hitting the NY streets with ANOTHER $30-$40K of debt.

Outside Yale, maybe, who the hell back in the 70s even bothered going to MFA programs? Let alone PAID for them?

-Health Care. "Back then": one could still just go to a doctor, remember? Doctors made house calls. You paid per visit, even if you weren't insured.

Now think how much crucial employment/career decisions are made even by young single folks based on healthcare and getting insurance. Choices that many of our forefathers didn't think twice about, I bet.

In short: cost of living in NYC was a lot lower, and, while hardly a welfare state, the social safety net and public services were much, much more dependable.

RLewis said...

on the tuition front, maybe there's an up-side: like fewer folks willing to drop so much coin for a theater career that will never pay it back; so if that drops the talent supply, maybe those remaining will better make ends meet with a larger slice of the pie and fewer to split it with.

Abigail Katz said...

I certainly think Artistic Directors and Managing Directors should be fairly compensated for the work they do, so long as the rest of their staff if fairly compensated as well. That doesn't happen often.

Anonymous said...

Yes, why is it that Theatre Administrators can afford to live, while the rest of us are out on are asses?!? As a playwright, and a fairly successful one I guess all things considered, I made the decision to leave the theatre as soon as I had the chance. I finally got that the stewards of the American Theatre DO NOT CARE if I live or die. It is very much the model of capitalism, where the artists are all Willy Loman, toting our flutes, wondering "what's the secret"? The secret is that there is no secret. The theatre is a shambles in this country. Tim Sanford, shame on you for turning Playwrights Horizons into a Mariott and choosing plays to match. Todd Haimes, shame on you for taking 40 percent of our royalty while you earn more in a year than most artists make in twenty. Manhattan Theatre Club is well known as being absolutely despicable to its artists and employees. Carol Rothman -- yes, that's just what the world needs, another non-for-profit theatre with a broadway house so your drecky plays can get a nice big audience!

Sorry for the rancor guys, but decades of doing this have taken their toll. The hypocrisy is enervating, depressing and totally demoralizing. The environment is so cynical and ugly. And you have to wonder: why are these people doing it? If you ARE in it for the money and the glory, go do film, do TV, do something else, ANYTHING.

I really believe that human beings are equal, and that in the theatre there is no hierarchy. Stage Managers are equal to Actors, Artistic Directors are equal to Playwrights. If art is about consciousness ad illuminating truths -- of any kind - how can the people who curate and "direct" what the art is do their job if they are operating inside a capitalist mirage of "success" and "growth"? And yes that means you Oskar! The whole lot of you are accountable. How about Todd Haimes NOT getting paid close to a million a year, and getting paid say, 200 thousand a year so he can eat at Gramercy Tavern once a week, and taking that 500K and giving it to the people who work at his theatre and can't really function because they are practically on f***king welfare!

Well, there's my rant for today. Sorry for the stridency.

PS I'll wait for Todd to address my problems in his next revival of a Brecht play, as the last was so stirring -- or so I heard, I couldn't afford to see it, as it was pitched for wealthy tourists, but isn't that why we love Brecht? The trophy playwright for silk shirt marxists. ugh. ok i'll stop.

TheEsoCritic said...

If I could add one more thing I'd like to point out a news item that has some bearing on this issue. It was reported this past week that Stamford Theatre Works has shut down after 20 years.

Mark my words that this is a really big deal. STW was what I call an "accessible" theater in that it was possible to actually get a job there even if you were just a regular actor, director, or yes, even a writer.

Most artists make their living in small to mid-size Equity houses like this. STW lived within its means, had a 90% subscriber renewal rate, and didn't have to compromise its season selections to maintain that for two decades. What's more, it had the benefit of one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, Fairfield County, CT. They seemed to be doing everything right.

If a small Equity house with affluent neighbors has to shut down, what does that mean for similar sized theaters without so many deep pockets around?

In the next 12 months (at least) of financial chaos that we expect, we'll see lots of news items on how Broadway, the Publics, and the Roundabouts are slimming down and tightening their belts. The health of these institutions is going to be equated with the health of the overall industry.

But how many more STWs are going to go down in 2009? That is what will have a major impact on the LIVES of professional theater artists--and most of them at that--working in our nation today.

Anonymous said...

I will briefly respond to "Anonymous" and remain anonymous myself - for I work for every single NY institution mentioned previously. It is a f*****g shame. Just look at NYTW - that wasn't that long ago. Spent too much money. WOOPS! Time to cut all production staff to an "on-call" status, and mount these barebones productions. I guess you do what you gotta do.

You know why they don't go to TV/Film/etc? They want the prestige and adoration of those intelligent individuals that they've surrounded themselves with for years. They want that praise of "producing meaningful theatre". They want to remain "true", while collecting $500k+ a year. Trust me - I've been to the openings. Seen the bullsh*t. You probably have too.

I wish we lived in a world where there was no hierarchy in theatre. But that's not how the off-b'way-non-profit-corporate theatre is. I'll leave you with a little story about my first meeting with one such AD:

It was near opening, and an envelope was handed to me - clearly a thank you note. I asked whom it was from, and a voice from the corner spoke up. I kindly asked who this person was, as I'd never met them. The response? "I'm your boss."

Sorry for the rant, but this stuff really makes me upset.

Anonymous said...

what's a decent wage that'll let a fifty year old with a family live with reasonable comfort in manhattan? 200k, perhaps? how many writers get that? how many freelance directors? stagehands? actors? what these people aren't seeing is that they're not CEOs making a profit here. they're paying themselves out of money that foundations and wealthy people gave to support art. and they can pay themselves more than all the other people who are equally necessary to make the art happen, not because they created their own value in a competitive market (the market for ADs is way too small and rigged for that), but simply because they have their hands on the money before anyone else does. sure, people who've struggled deserve a living wage. but seeing ADs taking 500k when there are successful artists who've worked as long and as hard still waiting tables is to see just how far the moral and ideological corruption of the last eight years has spread. they should be ashamed.

The Playgoer said...

I do understand--and appreciate--many of the heated, outraged responses to this story. But I'm not sure I would agree these AD's need to feel "ashamed," quite. I'm not sure theatre executives should somehow engage in "unilateral disarmament" in cutting their own salaries when no one else in either the commercial OR EVEN nonprofit corporate worlds are doing so.

Then again, if someone doesn't do it first, I guess it'll never happen.

Let's face it, the decision lies with these boards ultimately, doesn't it, and how they allocate the slim resources of any given theatre company.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other Anonymous -- 'shame' is the right word. shame is about bankrupt values, and the values that allow an AD to take 3-5% of an organization's total 'nonprofit' budget while the staff, the actors and the writers work day jobs or eat ramen all the time -- those are bankrupt values. And as a playwright, it's especially galling to have (as Anonymous rightly points out) large companies like MTC et al take 40% of future earnings -- the future being your only means of adequate support in many cases. What I do expect is a rough proportionality -- if an AD gets paid 1 million, then divide that by the number of plays he or she puts on in a year and I expect to be paid that number. That is a partnership. The model we're looking at now (in the theater! the theater!) reminds me of the pre-union 19th-century one, where the bosses lived up on the hill and everyone else lived in shanties. I exaggerate, but the outlines of the system today are starting to look familiar in a nauseating way. And, Garrett, i appreciate so much what you do here, but in my view the question of 'disarmament' is moot because either these people run their company in an honorable way that respects (financially as well as interpersonally) who they work with -- and who in fact they cannot work without -- or they don't. 'Comparable' salaries shouldn't come into it -- do it right or don't do it at all. As for the power of boards, we saw how well that type of oversight worked out for Enron, Lehman, etc. The responsibility properly rests with the AD.

Ken said...

That any theater would take a cut of the future earnings of a play (and especially 40%!) is reprehensible. MTC will produce dozens/hundreds of shows (many of which may transfer to a commercial run and earn the theater a lot of cash)from now until they eventually close up shop. However, a writer of any one of those productions will probably only ever have a handful of pieces that will earn him/her any kind of money at all.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am biased because I work in arts administration, but there seems to be very little respect being given on here for what it is that we do.

Don't you realize that without the financial/fundraising/marketing expertise of these individuals, that those organizations would produce NO theatre. These are not simple structure or concepts, and it normally requires an MBA and extensive training to even begin to understand how these things work.

Look, I've worked at the bottom of some these NFP's, and I agree and understand your frustrations. I had to manage to live on a really small salary, and I hated it. Yes, the income gap is huge, but so are the skills that the AD's have that the normal staff does not. Yes, there are times when the AD's are selfish, but most peoeple don't realize how much time an artistic director or executive director spends fundraising for their organizations among other things.

There is a ton of responsibility and scrutiny contained in these top jobs, and while I do not agree with every decision they make, I completely respect the work that they do to further the art.

Jhon smith said...

Nonprofit leaders need to be compared with other nonprofit leaders, in terms of size and budget of the organization, not on an industry-by-industry basis. It's gauge vs. gouge. If boards have to justify why their CEO is being paid more than the CEO of a larger nonprofit with a bigger budget, then we can attain a reliable gauge. By saying, "well, this is what other ADs get," then we just get gouged.

Bhima shankar said...

I really believe that human beings are equal, and that in the theatre there is no hierarchy. Stage Managers are equal to Actors, Artistic Directors are equal to Playwrights. If art is about consciousness ad illuminating truths -- of any kind - how can the people who curate and "direct" what the art is do their job if they are operating inside a capitalist mirage of "success" and "growth"? And yes that means you Oskar! The whole lot of you are accountable. How about Todd Haimes NOT getting paid close to a million a year, and getting paid say, 200 thousand a year so he can eat at Gramercy Tavern once a week, and taking that 500K and giving it to the people who work at his theatre and can't really function because they are practically on f***king welfare!