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Culture cash

Get a job in the arts and make seven figures? Maybe -- if you're a marquee name at Disney Hall. But not if you're dusting dinosaurs. Check out the highs and lows in our first L.A. arts salary survey.

April 02, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

NOBODY chokes on their Cheerios anymore hearing that Tom Cruise might make $80 million on one movie ("The Last Samurai") or that the Rolling Stones gross $162 million in a year of touring (last year). But since when do museum people make a million a year, and since when do we hear about it?

These questions occurred to many people in February, when Barry Munitz resigned his well-paying post as president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The result, indirectly, is this: Calendar's first salary survey of the Southern California museums, playhouses, orchestras and other bastions of high culture.

Among the findings:

The biggest salary among Southern California's nonprofit arts organizations goes to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director for more than a decade, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The second-biggest? To the L.A. Phil's chief executive, Deborah Borda.

Meanwhile, the dangling acrobats who squeegee the metal skin of Disney Hall get by on $18 an hour. The top-earning stagehand at the Los Angeles Opera makes nearly four times as much as a bit-part actor on the boards at the Mark Taper Forum. And the most richly compensated arts official in Orange County until last year was apparently an accounts-receivable clerk.

Late in 2005, Orange County Performing Arts Center officials discovered that clerk Ana Limbaring had embezzled $1.85 million since 2000, or $370,000 a year. On Monday, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Conversely, the only Los Angeles museum director to be profiled in the New Yorker and awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant puts in 60 hours a week for nothing: Museum of Jurassic Technology director David Wilson.

As for the directors of the city's big three art museums -- the Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art -- their base salaries ranged from $350,000 to $455,153 in 2004. (That's the most recent year for which figures are available.) On top of that, each director goes home at night to a house owned or financed by his museum. (Some leaders get cars too.)

But if you wonder exactly what LACMA's new director makes, you'll have to wait. Even though the museum in the next year will have to tell the IRS in a public filing -- and even though the museum stands on county land and gets millions in county funding -- its leaders won't disclose what they're paying Michael Govan.



GETTING back to Munitz for a minute: He wasn't just running the Getty Museum, he was running the wealthiest arts organization in the world. Along with the Getty Museum sites in Brentwood and on the edge of Malibu, the $9.6-billion trust bankrolls grant-making, conservation and research, spending more than $270 million yearly.

What sunk Munitz, most close observers agree, wasn't his salary but his effect on morale and accounts of spending on perks and expenses, including first-class travel for his wife on trips of arguable value to the trust. The state attorney general's office is probing. Most of the numbers in this article came from disclosure forms these organizations fill out as a requirement of their tax-exempt status -- 990 forms, in arts-accountant shorthand. But as many arts administrators will be pointing out in the days ahead, it's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from these numbers. There's more than one way to legally fill out a 990 form.

From one glance, for instance, it seems that Uri Herscher, president and chief executive of the $15.2-million-a-year Skirball Cultural Center, makes just $50,000, a pittance compared with the $219,077 base salary earned by Skirball vice president Lori Starr. But the lion's share of Herscher's income, undisclosed on the form, comes from Hebrew Union College, a close institutional ally of the Skirball. Through a spokeswoman, Herscher said his combined compensation is more than $220,000 but declined to specify.

The president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Steven Koblik, also looks notably underpaid. The form shows he draws less than $170,000 in salary while handling an annual budget of more than $25 million. But Koblik's nonsalary benefits -- which the filing values at about $39,000 but doesn't specify -- include residence in a spacious house on the Huntington property with a view of 80 undeveloped Huntington-owned acres.

Koblik notes that living there is a requirement of the job. Don't cry for Steve, Pasadena.

Now, on to the rest of this region's culture leaders and some of their followers, most of whom dwell in a substantially less salubrious world.

"We work very hard for the money we get paid," said Dick Messer, who earns a little over $120,000 yearly as director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. "By the hour, I'm making about $8 to $10 per hour."

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