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Starving artists? Not among the leaders of L.A. arts institutions

The Music Center's Stephen Rountree and L.A. Opera's James Conlon join the L.A. art executives' million-dollar club. A look at the salaries of art chiefs.

May 29, 2013|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Increases for Music Center President Stephen Rountree put him over the million-dollar mark.
Increases for Music Center President Stephen Rountree put him over the… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)

L.A. added two new million-dollar-a-year executives to the ranks of its top-paid arts leaders during 2011, although two existing members of the seven-person club had to get by with less than they'd made in 2010.

Increases for Music Center President Stephen Rountree and Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon put them above $1 million in total wages and benefits, according to the organizations' recently filed federal tax returns for the 2011-12 fiscal year that ended last June 30, the most recent period for which figures are available.

Rountree and Conlon joined Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda, Getty Trust President James Cuno and Getty Chief Investment Officer James Williams, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan and L.A. Opera's general director Plácido Domingo.

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Cuno was also technically new, since 2011-12 was his first year at the Getty. But he'd earned more than a million dollars in his previous job as director of the Art Institute of Chicago.

An eighth million-dollar-a-year earner in Los Angeles is on the horizon, or, most likely, already there: Gustavo Dudamel, who made $985,363 in 2010 as music director of the L.A. Phil, is an odds-on bet to have passed the $1-million compensation mark, but the Phil declined to provide updated earnings figures for him and Borda.

Their 2011 remuneration will become public in mid-August, the Phil's tax-filing deadline for its 2011-12 fiscal year.

Unlike corporate chief executives, whose performance is judged by profits and losses, nonprofit arts executives are expected to excel at landing large donations. Besides the artistic and fiscal savvy to oversee a strong creative program within a prudent budget, a leader's fundraising skills can determine whether an organization is able to become, or remain, top-tier.

Their pay is determined by boards of directors that, for the largest organizations, typically skew toward those with extreme personal wealth.

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Other factors in major arts executives' compensation are the economic strata in which they operate, and the skills required for them to be effective, said Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economics professor whose interests include the economics of arts and culture.

If they're good at their jobs, he said, "the mere fact that their pay is high I don't think is a cause for concern. Think of the donor network that person has to manage, and how much stature and skill that takes. It's hard to find good people who can sit down with a billionaire entrepreneur and Yo-Yo Ma and hold the room, not coming across as a lackey pleading for money, but as someone they actually want to spend time with."

L.A.'s high-earners in the arts reflect what it takes for the city to be a world-class cultural center, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

"Part of it is because of the Govans and Domingos and Conlons and the Gustavo Dudamels. It's a compliment to Los Angeles in a very direct way that we can command these kinds of folks," he said. "There are orchestras all over the world who want a piece of James Conlon, and to keep him here as music director of L.A. Opera, you've got to make it worth his while. These are incredibly talented people, in the top 1% of their profession, and they command the top 1% of salaries in their profession."

If top arts executives' pay in Los Angeles sounds high, the recent filings show that at least one nonperforming New York City arts leader passed the $2-million compensation threshold in 2011 — Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy, who made $2,097,881.

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James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera's music director ($2.06 million), and San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas ($2.41 million) both topped $2 million from a single organization during 2010, their jobs focused on performing but also including administrative duties. Like Dudamel and Borda, they work for organizations that haven't yet filed the returns that will show their 2011 earnings.

In L.A., Govan and Domingo were the two leaders whose pay declined. Govan's $1,265,366 package at LACMA in 2011 was a 6.2% drop from the previous year, when he had earned bonuses connected with fulfilling his initial contract, while getting an extension to 2016. His 2011 earnings included a $108,300 valuation of his museum-provided housing.

Domingo's compensation from Los Angeles Opera include separate payments for his work as its general director and as a performer who sings or conducts. The total was $1,027,270 in 2011, including $120,450 in performance fees. His overall compensation was down 27% from the year before.

Conlon earned $1,182,723 as the opera company's music director, up 19% from 2010, when he'd fallen just short of $1 million.

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