We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive

HP_20061208151116_001.JPG With all the empty directorial posts floating around (the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London etc) and the brain drain that is steadily sucking talent from institutions towards the commercial art sector, museums are having to cough up big in order to keep their best staff from straying. For the most part, the bar is still way below corporate CEO standards, but who’s to say that Phillipe de Montebello didn’t richly deserve his recent $4 million golden pat on the back, after 30 years of solid service to the Metropolitan, America’s largest and most complex arts institution?

However, while museum directors should be handsomely paid for guarding our national treasures (don’t get me started on ‘dodgy’ expense accounts) and no ceiling price can be placed on talent, there is a clear disparity developing between what a museum director gets paid in the US and what he or she would get in Europe. What is the difference between Glenn Lowry’s job at MoMA and say, Nick Serota’s at Tate, apart of course from the gaping $750,000 chasm in earnings (Lowry’s $1.14 million compared to Serota’s $390,000 all in, according to The Art Newspaper)?

Perhaps this is easy to answer given the different funding options available to both men – rich trustees and donors on one side of the Atlantic and poor government funding and limited handouts on the other. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Tate is still wealthy enough to run four separate sites in Britain concurrently and build a  £215m extension to Tate Modern (having announced a record 7.7m visitors for last year). Perhaps, in Europe, we expect our public servants to be just that and no more. How long before the museum director post becomes so devalued over here that all eligible candidates begin defecting to the team with the biggest financial clout?

2 thoughts on “We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive”

  1. This direct comparison of similar sounding posts is dangerous. Oprah Winfrey made $260 million last year in the US, while the UK’s Jonathan Ross is making $30 million over three years. These numbers reveal more about the relative size of the markets and societal attitude towards financial rewards than how they value their best TV hosts.

    But I agree with the general theme you are probing. European (and certainly UK) arts remuneration is shamefully low, encouraging self-selection based on class and independent means rather than selection of the best talent going.

  2. The term “brain drain” dates from the icy heart of the Cold War, when many of England’s top scientists and engineers decamped for America to work on defense contracts or do basic research. There was less differentiation between public and private sectors of the so-called military industrial complex, which tended to merge government and corporate interests. But as is often the case, talented individuals followed the money, leading to the phenomenon of the “mid-Atlantic man” — a migration of stars away from England and towards centers of power and opportunity.

    During the darkest days of 1980s Thatcherism, when the government gave scant attention and support to the arts, a generation of English artists took matters into their own hands, creating their own exhibitions, institutions and supports. Their do-it-yourself aesthetic encouraged the creation of indigenous structures, rather than running off to the promised land of NYC. The upshot? England’s art scene seems to be doing quite well these days, particularly if we just consider the private sector. Galleries and collections abound. The YBAs of yesteryear are the stars of today, and are making big waves on both sides of the pond. Hirst has his $100 million skull, Saatchi a continually burgeoning collection and website.

    If museums in England are in trouble, if they cannot provide directors’ salaries offered by their American counterparts, and if they also lag the more commercial arts sector at home, is this part of a general European problem? Is there a sheer lack of government funding? A greater number of institutions who must share the public trough? Less of a tradition of private benefaction? Or, as Ossian suggests, a culture of public service that tends to undervalue remuneration within the institution? Whatever the cause, will this disparity lead to another brain drain? or will some indigenous development — an election, a public outcry, the passage of a law, the discovery of a new source of private funding, or pure bulldog DIY gumption — be able to turn the tide and encourage the best and the brightest to remain in England?

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