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By Ben DuBose
The curatorial assistants at the Museum of Fine Arts were frustrated. It was the summer of 1997, shortly after ground had been broken for the new multimillion-dollar Audrey Jones Beck Building that eventually would help the MFA leap from the 30th-largest art exhibit space in the country to the sixth. The assistants' workload was increasing, and they knew it would grow even more once the building opened in 2000. But they felt underappreciated -- and even more frustrated about being underpaid. When one empl oyee got hold of a survey that gave the mean salaries for curatorial assistants at museums across the country, frustration turned to anger.
"We were at the bottom of the scale, especially for a museum of that size in a city this size," says one former c uratorial assistant who, like most of the former and current employees interviewed for this piece, asked not to be identified. "It was very low. We all realized we'd be making more money if we were secretaries."
Indeed, the secretaries in the department had just received a raise, but the assistants -- several of whom had advanced degrees and were fluent in more than one foreign language -- were being hired at starting salaries in the high teens.
The eight assistants asked for a meeting with the museum's longtime director, Peter C. Marzio, who welcomed them into his office. The assistants were nervous. After all, he was the director of the museum. But they found Marzio gracious and charming -- words often used to describe him. After the employees politely voiced their concerns, they waited for a response. Instead of a raise, the assistants got career advice.
"He told us to go out and get MBAs and get ahead," remembers one assistant. "He said, 'Raising money is where the high salaries are.' "
More prophetic words were never spoken. In 2000, after a five-year capital campaign that generated $127 million for the new Beck building as well as $110 million in art donations or cash to buy art, Marzio was rewarded by the museum's board of trustees with a staggering bonus of $1.7 million. Marzio, whose annual salary and bonus of $525,000 is already well above average (it was once listed in Forbes under the headline "Figures to Really Stare At"), refused to discuss the bonus with the H ouston Press. But it was no small piece of news. After the bonus was made public last fall, The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Philanthropy both ran stories noting its surprising size. And perhaps more important, the announcement of the bonus touched on the raw nerves of MFA employees who believe the museum is veering into dangerous territory by losing quality staff members to higher-paying positions elsewhere.
"People were just dumbfounded" over the bonus, says one current employee. "They were angry."
Now, current and former employees claim the museum staff is stretched to the limit and that even though the museum has almost doubled in size -- as has the workload -- the staff has not been properly compensated or incr eased.
Respected, longtime workers are leaving in what one former employee describes as "absolutely an exodus," and some believe inexperienced people are being hired at bottom dollar to handle artworks that are worth millions.
"This is a community institution, and they just haven't shown a lot of heart lately," says one former staff member. "It seems the museum is shooting itself in the foot."
"I'm not going to talk about the bonus, okay?" says Peter Marzio over the phone. "The press has done so much on it that there's nothing more I can say about it, so I've just decided to clam up about it. It's done."
Marzio is right. The bonus, which was reported in the museum's public IRS documents, generated quite a buzz (associate director Gwendolyn Goffe also received a bonus of $424,304 for her work on the capital campaign). According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which took note of the bonus in its October 4 issue last year, the $1.7 million bumped Marzio's total compensation up to one of only three executives in the Chronicle's annual survey to earn a seven-figure salary. The other big-money earners were the president of the Mount Sinai Medical Center and the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
"It was about the easiest decision the board ever made," says Alfred C. Glassell Jr., who was serving as chair of the board at the time. "We were so happy and pleased about [the capital campaign], we gave Dr. Marzio what we hope he thinks is a nice bonus. Because he certainly deserves it."
Another longtime board member, who asked not to be named, acknowledged the bonus was not only to reward Marzio for his work on the campaign but also to thank him for staying at the MFA. Marzio received quite a bit of attention in 1994 when he was considered a possible candidate for the directorship of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and his almost 20-year tenure at the MFA is considered quite long by many museum professionals.
"In the past he's had strong overtures from other institutions to leave Houston," says the board member. "The decision to stay was partly reflected in the bonus."