Newsweek's The Street blog posted a list today of the 15 Highest Paid Charity CEOs, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's Peter Marzio was listed as number six with a salary (in 2008) of $1,054,939 -- the first million-dollar earner on the list. According to the list, in 2008 Marzio earned about $70,000 more than Brian A. Gallagher, CEO of United Way Worldwide, and about $35,000 less than Michael Kaiser, CEO of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
CEOs of medical-research and and historical-preservation charities take the bottom half of the list, starting with $806,150 for Stephen Prescott of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation at number 15.
But arts orgs dominate the list's top end, with million-plus salaries for the CEOs of The Guggenheim Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Philharmonic (number one with $2,649,540 for CEO Zarin Mehta).
Such lists usually incite rage in the hearts of conservatives, many of whom dismiss the fine arts as useless and frivolous. The popular charity-tracking site CharityNavigator.org was apparently compelled by "concern among users over excessive CEO pay" to create the list.
A non-profit itself, Charity Navigator stated in the report's introduction:
"Many donors assume that charity leaders work for free or minimal pay and are shocked to see that they earn six figure salaries. But these well-meaning donors fail to consider that these CEOs are running multi-million dollar operations that endeavor to change the world."
And the report's assessment of Marzio:
6th Highest Salary: Peter C. Marzio, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Compensation (2008): $1,054,939 Houston's Museum of Fine Arts prides itself on being "the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles." Despite the disclaimers, it is a bastion of art in the southern U.S. and it sees more than 2.5 million visits a year, with outreach and education activities reaching more than 670,000 by the museum's reckoning.
Director Peter C. Marzio is the first million-dollar earner on the list, as the 8.27% increase in compensation from 2007 to 2008 bumped him up to the next level. Director since 1982, Marzio has clearly been rewarded for his longtime service. It may be hard to put a price on art, but not on the director of an art museum.
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This news comes after Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight blasted the MFAH in a diatribe about "vanity exhibits," in which museums create shows drawn from local private collections. Knight argued that such exhibits were lazy and confirmed insinuations that museums are "playthings for the rich and well-connected." He wrote, "Perhaps the nation's most active vanity venue is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where no fewer than seven [vanity exhibits] have been displayed since 2007."
And surely people will point to this list as evidence of Marzio courting private donations through exhibition favors.
But as also evidenced by the recent commission from internationally recognized artist Cai-Guo Qiang, and the addition of the Asia Galleries, the museum is making big efforts to increase its profile. The future includes plans for an expansion of the museum's overall campus as well. And it has been gobbling art; the collection is ballooning.
Vanity or savvy, it's up to donors to decide if Marzio holds the ranking.