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

"We could go work at a taxidermy museum in Denton and make twice as much as we were making," says one employee who left after the new building opened.

But upset former employees claim it's not just the apparent injustice of Marzio's bonus in comparison to their low wages that made them angry enough to find better-paying work elsewhere. Many say that with the addition of the new building -- exhibition space has increased by a third -- the workload has doubled, but new staff members have not been added and the many who have left are not being replaced. And when they are replaced, employees claim, positions are being filled by inexperienced staffers willing to work for less. Several employees voiced concern about new preparators, who deal with the installation and disassembly of the exhibits.

"When I first started there, it was a group of men and women I completely trusted to handle fragile art thousands of years old," says one former employee who left almost a year after the new building opened. "When I left I didn't necessarily think the whole staff was reflected in that way. They were kids, fresh and inexperienced, and I felt I had to monitor them." Several employees who dealt directly with the art echoed this sentiment.

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.

Staff burnout is a huge problem, says one employee. "There are a lot of very earnest people here who really care about art, but the process has just grown enormously," he says. "Expanding the number of shows, expanding the number of square footage -- there really wasn't a plan to deal with that."

While Marzio refuses to discuss these specific frustrations with the Press, he says the museum is "amazingly lean." That's "neither good or bad, it's just dictated by the economics." He acknowledges that the new building has increased museum exhibition space by about a third, and that most of the new hires were security guards for the new building (current staff, including part-time and full-time employees, numbers 681 -- with 120 of those being security guards). Marzio says if finances permit, growth will soon occur in the accounting and personnel departments, not in the curatorial, preparations and conservation departments, where most of the staff complaints originate.

But beyond the local troubles, some fear that Marzio's bonus and staff grumblings are simply part of a larger, national trend: that of nonprofit museums following in the footsteps of for-profit corporations, complete with talk of product and the bottom line. Gone are the academic, scholarly directors with modest salaries who rose from the ranks of the curatorial department. They are being replaced by MBAs with diverse business backgrounds and finely tuned fund-raising skills. Museum attendance has skyrocketed in the past ten years, but some argue it has been at too great a cost. So-called traveling blockbusters, such as the recent Star Wars exhibit at the MFA, pack people in at museums across the country, but many question if it can be defined as art. The criticism has certainly not been limited to the MFA. Thomas Krens, director of New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, generated much criticism with a fall 2000 exhibit of Armani suits (which seemed perfectly timed with a hefty $15 million donation from Giorgio himself).

"Everyone wants to go see King Tut," sighs one former museum employee. "Who wants an intelligent show on French landscape painting of the 17th century that attracts five people?"

Jim Harithas, director of the Corcoran Gallery in the late '60s and Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum in the mid-'70s, says that when he started out, museum directors were "expected to be poor and have holes in our sleeves." But that's all changed, as museum director salaries have increased and corporate-funded shows are becoming more commonplace.

"I think it's pop culture invading the museum," says Harithas, who now serves as director of the small avant-garde Art Car Museum. "Some museums really get their money from corporate sources, and it's reflected in the kind of corporate shows they do."

But Ed Able, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C., considers that kind of remark "elitist at very best," he says. "Who says who has the right to define what is valued? Whether it's a motorcycle or an Armani or a Van Gogh?"

According to Able, the new breed of museum director has helped bring financial solvency and security to many museums. He says he encourages young museum professionals to get MBAs, and claims that if higher salaries and large capital campaigns help expose more people to art, then the museum is only taking the proper steps to fulfill its new role as an educational institution for the community.

"For many decades we were focused on building our collections, and I think that the perception became that we were the nation's attic, the keeper of the stuff," says Able. "That's not what we're about. We're about object-based learning."

And according to Able, the financially savvy museum director is going to become even more important in the coming years. With the soft economy, struggling stock market and slowdown in tourism after September 11 combining to create a tight financial spot for many museums, directors who know how to find money are crucial.

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