Compensation in the arts: Some salaries raise eyebrows

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2009 - 9:29 AM

Joe Dowling's pay package at the Guthrie Theater was $682,229 in salary and benefits in 2007.


Joe Dowling

Photo: Steve Rice, Star Tribune

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Is Joe Dowling, longtime director of the Guthrie Theater, overpaid?

Parts of the Twin Cities arts community have been buzzing about that question since the recent disclosure that Dowling was paid $682,229 in salary and benefits in 2007. Even discounting a one-time bonus of $100,000, his compensation surpassed that of his peers not only in New York but also at nonprofit theaters elsewhere in the United States.

Dowling's pay, set in flusher times, became public amid a deep recession that already has spurred some arts groups to announce cutbacks and offer discounts.

The Guthrie, for example, ran a two-for-one ticket special for its usually bankable holiday show, "A Christmas Carol." The Ordway Center offered promotions for "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," which was a sellout two years ago. The Minnesota Orchestra accelerated its discount-ticket program to fill seats.

Both the theater and orchestra have international reputations -- a point of civic pride in a community that celebrates its arts, and a reason, some say, that someone like Dowling is so well-paid.

"Minnesota is the 21st-largest state, and the Twin Cities are the 16th-largest metro area, but in many categories our nonprofits, including arts organizations, rank in the top three," said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. "If our top-compensated people rank in the top tier, it's because our organizations rank in the top tier."

Others view it differently.

"I don't know if it's reasonable or not, but the fact that [Dowling's pay] is the highest in the country -- that certainly would be a red flag," said Kate Barr, executive director of the Twin Cities-based Nonprofit Assistance Fund.

"I would want to ask the board, which represents the public interest, what basis of comparison are they using for setting this compensation?"

Irv Weiser, a lifetime Guthrie board member who once served on the compensation committee, said Dowling's pay is justified. "It's a lot of dough, especially in this economy, but I don't think his pay is excessive," Weiser said. "The Guthrie is the largest regional theater in the country, with three stages going. And the guy works harder than anybody I know. He's done a heck of a job, both fiscally and artistically."

Another Guthrie board member, who asked not to be identified, was surprised by the amount of Dowling's pay package. "Joe has done outstanding things -- he's been great for the Guthrie -- but I question if that is appropriate at this time," the board member said.

Reinvented theater

Since taking the helm on Dec. 1, 1995, Dowling has balanced the books, expanded audiences and reinvented the theater. In 1998, he retired a $1.8 million debt that the company had accumulated.

The Guthrie has finished in the black each of the past 12 years. The theater's annual budget more than doubled over that time, to $25.9 million. Dowling has more than doubled his company's productions and increased audiences, drawing 425,894 patrons in 2007, compared with 304,803 tickets sold in the 1996-1997 season. His biggest legacy is the $125 million, three-stage theater that opened two years on the Mississippi riverfront.

By comparison, Todd Haimes heads New York's Roundabout company, which has six stages in several locations and a budget of $50 million, nearly twice that of the Guthrie. In 2007, Haimes was paid $487,439.

At Lincoln Center Theater, with two stages and a budget 25 percent bigger than the Guthrie's, artistic director André Bishop made $428,183 in compensation and benefits in 2007.

Elsewhere nationwide, regional-theater heads are paid far less than Dowling is. Robert Falls is artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, which several years ago completed a $46 million expansion. Director of such acclaimed Broadway transfers as "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," he was paid $354,657 in fiscal year 2006, the latest year for which tax filings are available.

Martha Lavey, artistic director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, earned $180,000 in 2006. Her company transferred Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County" to Broadway, where it won the Tony for best play last year.

Osmo Vänskä, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra, outpaced Dowling with a 2007 compensation package of $813,946. But Vänskä's pay is more in line with his peers at other big U.S. orchestras. The St. Louis Symphony's David Robertson was paid $725,000 in 2006, while music directors of symphony orchestras in Los Angeles and San Francisco each were paid $1.5 million that year.

The pay packages for leaders of two of the area's other arts flagships -- the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center -- were unavailable for comparison, as each museum has a new leader and has not yet reported compensation.

Neither Vänskä nor Dowling would comment for this story.

Reining in nonprofit salaries

As Congress has gotten tough on corporate salaries, at least one city has tried to rein in nonprofit pay. A member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors introduced a measure in November to limit pay for leaders of nonprofits that receive significant public funding. He or she could earn no more than six times the salary and benefits of the lowest-paid full-time employee.

Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, has twice introduced a measure in the Minnesota House to cap nonprofit pay at the governor's $120,000 salary. It did not pass, to his chagrin.

"If you are the governor of Minnesota, managing a $34 billion budget for the biennium, and can do it for a salary of $120- to $200,000, I don't see why these guys can't get along with a similar salary," Seifert said. "With people struggling the way they are, the average candlestick maker is going to look at this and ask, 'Is that justifiable?' I don't think so."

The recession may make the question moot.

Dowling has voluntarily reduced his earnings in the past, instituting a 20 percent cut for the top four wage earners at the theater during a difficult spell in 2003 that included staff reductions. There is no word yet on whether he is considering such a move again as the recession deepens and Minnesota's nonprofits, including arts groups, face tough decisions and make more significant cuts.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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