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


One way of getting to the new Beck building from the main section of the MFA is to walk through an installation by American artist James Turrell. His piece -- a long, dark tunnel with purple neon and halide light projections -- provides an eerie and quiet transitory space before visitors enter the sweeping new 192,447-square-foot addition.

Once inside the Beck building, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormous scope and stature of the structure. The walls are painted in muted greens and soft blues, and the galleries are filled with natural light. One of the first things visitors see as they enter is the enormous tribute to big-money donor s: The names of the corporations, foundations and individuals who made the biggest contributions to the capital campaign are etched into a wall with letters almost seven-inches high.

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.

It seems to be the most tangible evidence of Peter Marzio's efforts.

When the building opened in March 2000, the museum incorporated its debut with the institution's 100th birthday, complete with a vibrant celebration. Pictures of that party eventually graced the cover of the MFA's 1999-2000 Annual Report, and inside the report Marzio and then-chair Alfred Glassell Jr. addressed a letter to supporters titled "A New Museum for the Twenty-First Century." It spoke in glowing terms of the museum's new horizons and upcoming opportunities.

But the more the museum looks to the future, the more many of its employees want an MFA of the past. They might not have been making much money, but at least it didn't feel like one person was walking off with the whole pie.

And maybe even more than wishing for an MFA of years ago, they want a museum world of another era, an era where art was all that counted.

"I was young and naive," sighs one of the former curatorial assistants whom Marzio once advised to earn an MBA. "I thought [working in a museum] would be pure and pristine. I thought it would be my dream job." She figured she would work in a museum all her life and become a well-known curator someday. But now she can't imagine anyone sticking with it for more than a few years.

"It takes a very special person to make a career of it," she says. "It takes an understanding of what it takes to make money, and a willingness to gear everything you do to that goal."

It seems that if anyone is that kind of special person, Peter Marzio is. He fell into the museum world quite unexpectedly, but it's become his life's work. And after more than 20 years in the business, he certainly sounds pleased with his choices.

"I've never been so happy in all my life," he says. "I can't imagine being more fulfilled in work. I mean, I work very hard. I love it."

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