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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."
As to the frustration expressed by some employees, the board member says, "It doesn't surprise me that there are feelings, but I can't speak to it either way," adding that the publicity surrounding the bonus is not a bad thing.
"The word is out that there are going to be all these articles, and I think some [on the board] fear it's going to be a hatchet job. But it's a public institution, and these things need to be aired."
So just how much is a $1.7 million bonus? According to James Abruzzo, "it's a very high number, an unusually high number, certainly in the cultural world." Abruzzo works for DHR-StratfordGroup, an executive se arch firm with offices in Houston. Based in New York, Abruzzo has worked on executive searches for museums and other cultural institutions for more than 20 years.
According to Abruzzo, the more common way of giving a large bonus to a director of a cultural institution is to create some kind of deferred compensation package. Abruzzo says one of the last bonuses to receive such attention was the nearly $1 million awarded to Lotfi Mansouri when he retired as general director of the San Francisco Opera Association in 2000. In Mansouri's case, a certain amount of money was set aside each year with the understanding that he would collect it when he left the opera.
And even though retention and reward bonuses are becoming more common in the museum world, says Abruzzo, Marzio's is still incredibly large for an arts institution. If the board members had wanted to avoid the unnecessary attention, he jokes, they should have thought to pay it out separately over two fiscal years, "so that snoopy reporters like you don't find the whole thing on one 990," he says, referring to the museum's public IRS documents.
The board's main argument supporting the size of the bonus is that by running the capital campaign in-house, Marzio saved the museum the cost of an outside fund-raising consultant. But that might not be entirely correct.
"I'm not disagreeing with Peter completely, but a $1.7 million fee for a fund-raising campaign --unless it was for working on a campaign for a very long, long time -- would be a very large fee," says David Jones, principal and partner of The Dini Partners, a philanthropy and nonprofit management company with offices in Houston, Austin and Dallas.
"There's no way of knowing a quick answer," says Jones, when asked what a fee would be for a campaign the size of the MFA's. "A rate is based on the amount of time devoted; it's never based on a percentage or flat fee." According to Jones, outside consulting can include anything from advising the institution to running every aspect of the entire campaign.
Still, there are those who think the bonus is well deserved. Almost everyone interviewed for this story, including frustrated employees, acknowledged the countless hours Marzio devoted to running a successful campaign over five years' time. Other museum professionals think the bonus was proper compensation for a job well done.
"From my own point of view, I think Peter has done a remarkable job in Houston," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York. "I think he deserves it."
There is no question that Peter Marzio has done great things for the MFA. The new Beck building serves as a capstone to a litany of other achievements. Under his direction, attendance has skyrocketed from fewer than 300,000 a year to 2.5 million in 2001. The operating budget has grown from $5 million to almost $35 million, and the museum's endowment also has increased, from $25 million to $430 million.
"It was completely transformed from a wonderful regional institution to more of a place in the sun," says former MFA curator George Shackelford, now with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Shackelford, who left in 1996 after 11 years in Houston, believes Marzio was the driving force behind a broadening of the museum's vision and scope.
"That kind of change is never the result of one person, but the catalyst was Peter," he says.
Other employees credit Marzio with smart hires, including the recent acquisition of Mari Carmen Ramirez as curator of Latin American art. Marzio has taken on several renovation projects such as the Bayou Bend House, one of two house museums affiliated with the MFA, and also has been instrumental in creating relationships with other institutions around the globe. The museum's latest partnership with the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow will bring art to the United States that has never been displayed in this country.
But Marzio is most often credited with expanding the role of the museum as an educational tool for Houston. His approach can often be quite hands-on; employees speak of his habit of giving impromptu lectures to groups of visiting elementary-school children. But perhaps more important, Marzio has increased the museum's education department to 16 people, one of the largest in a museum the size of the MFA.
Longtime education director Beth Schneider remembers that before Marzio the department consisted of a few gallery guides and a person who ran the department part time. When he arrived in 1982, Marzio insisted the department's staff and programming be increased. The MFA now has a lending library of more than 900 titles that teachers of all grade levels can use at no cost. The museum also has established traveling exhibits and works with the Houston and Harris County library systems, the Houston Independent School District and the city's Parks and Recreation Department to bring art to those who cannot get to the museum on a regular basis. The education department also implemented a bus program to provide transportation to the museum for those who do not have cars. To address the large Hispanic population in Houston, Schneider says, there has been an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking docents, the audio tour is available in Spanish, and the exhibits that travel to schools and libraries often have explanatory labels in both Spanish and English.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."