What's Wrong with This Picture?

MFA director Peter C. Marzio gets a bonus of $1.7 million while front-line museum employees say they have trouble paying their rent

"He is a true populist; he believes that as many people as possible need to have access to art," says Schneider.

But more than a commitment to accessibility, former curator Shackelford believes Marzio "has the very rare skill of making people who are not necessarily comfortable in the world of eggheads to feel very much at home and not threatened by their experience of very sophisticated material."

This might have something to do with Marzio's own experiences in the world of art. A native of New York, Marzio often quips that he never even entered an art museum until he was a student at Juaniata College in Pennsylvania, where he was accepted on a football scholarship. After viewing an image of Goya's painting The Forge during a college class, Marzio quickly found himself immersed in the world of art. He went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, specializing in history and art history. Before arriving at the MFA, he served as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from 1978 to 1982 and as chair of the department of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution from 1969 to 1978.

Peter Marzio's salary was already above average when he received the bonus.
Peter Marzio's salary was already above average when he received the bonus.
Longtime education director Beth Schneider says Marzio pushed to expand the museum's education department.
Deron Neblett
Longtime education director Beth Schneider says Marzio pushed to expand the museum's education department.

"That first exposure to art changed my life, so outreach means everything to me," he says. "Especially in our state, where most of our formal educational experiences do not include visual art."

But despite his ability to reach out to the masses, employees argue that Marzio has ignored a vast gulf that has been growing between himself and his staff since plans for the new building began to take shape.

"We're going to have to tighten our belts." It's a phrase the employees of the MFA say they know all too well. About once a year the staff of the MFA would be called into Brown Auditorium, where they were often encouraged to donate a portion of their paychecks to United Way. It seemed like a joke to most of the employees, who say they were barely making enough to pay the rent.

But United Way was not the only reason to hold the meetings. Employees say that in recent years Marzio took these opportunities to talk about the new building and its effect on the museum's budget. Staff members were told that everyone was going to have to pull together and save money, and they say they were led to believe each coming year would be tighter than the year before. They were often told not to expect raises. Employees were even reminded to turn off their office lights to save electricity when they went to the bathroom. However, workers say they were often promised that the hard work and extra hours required to make the new building happen would be worth it, and Marzio promised that they would be rewarded in the end.

But more than just delivering a pep talk to encourage thriftiness, Marzio used this time to instill in his staff the belief that they were lucky just to be working in the art world, no matter how low the pay was. Employees say Marzio liked to take a working-class "we're all in this together" stance at the meetings, and make it seem like love of art was reason enough to do the job. And after the new building was completed and the economy began to take a nosedive, Marzio sometimes suggested that his employees were fortunate to be employed at all.

"The last staff meeting I sat in on he said, 'You're lucky, you could be unemployed, look at all the dot-coms,' " remembers one former staff member.

But even though they remain upset, employees marvel at Marzio's ability to charm them. Staff members repeatedly described his demeanor in the meetings as smooth, and one former employee would often enter the meetings feeling frustrated, but then would "leave wishing this guy was my dad," he says. "He's a very good talker that way."

Museum employees became used to a 3 percent raise -- when they got it -- and say they were made to feel as if this was a merit raise, not a cost-of-living raise. Most acknowledge that they knew they'd never become rich off museum work -- the perks of doing what they loved while surrounded by priceless art was enough. But as the new building demanded more out of them, morale got worse, and the announcement of Marzio's large bonus certainly didn't improve it.

While the museum would not state starting salaries for certain positions, many of the salaries of employees who have left were below the national average for a museum of the MFA's size, operating budget and location, according to a recent national salary survey done by the Association of Art Museum Directors. For instance, one curatorial assistant with a master's degree and fluency in several languages who left in 1998 claims to have been hired in 1996 at $19,000 for 35 hours a week. When she left she was making $21,000. The Association of Art Museum Directors' 2000 salary survey quotes a mean curatorial assistant salary of $34,616 for a museum with an operating budget over $20 million (the MFA's operating budget is close to $35 million). When ranked by region and city population, the curatorial assistant's salary was still below average.

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