Sunday, April 05, 2015

Gelb at the Met, Redux

A few weeks ago, The New Yorker ran a long article, around 9,000 words, about Peter Gelb, the Met's finances, and last year's labor-relations drama. James B. Stewart, a business reporter at the NY Times, is the author. You may be wondering why this didn't run in the Times itself, especially considering Anthony Tommasini's statement in his Rubin Institute address about wishing that the business section would cover the Met's finances and labor relations.* My best guess about this is simply the length of Stewart's piece: it's way over the length of articles that run in Arts & Leisure or the business section, and it's perhaps too specialist for the Magazine.

The ever-alert Drew McManus solicited opinions, and after I read it, I posted a few. Here's an expanded version of what I wrote in comments at Adaptistration.

Stewart goes into quite a bit of detail about the structure and membership of the Met Board of Directors. There are two tiers of members, with different rights and responsibilities. This material dismayed me. Many board members are deeply engaged, but others pay essentially no attention to the company's finances. And that is a bad thing, because fiduciary responsibility to the institution comes with board membership.

Some of the board members are also so artistically conservative that I question whether they belong on the board at all. Okay, some of them have donated millions to the company. Still, some of what Stewart says makes it clear that Gelb has not succeeded in persuading the entire board to support his artistic vision, which includes moving away from overstuffed traditionalist productions.

For example, one older, and extremely wealthy, board member asked him whether she would see the Zefirelli Tosca, retired and in storage in favor of Luc Bondy's more modernist take on the opera, during her lifetime. Gelb was forthright in replying that the Zef production is not the Met's artistic direction, and I admire him for that. But a more canny response might have been "For you, dear lady, next season" (or 2017 or whatever), simply to court a donation from the board member.**

In my opinion, the article provides good reasons to get smart people who are knowledgable but not rich onto arts organization boards. Boards don’t exist just to raise money and rubber-stamp or oppose what management says.

Stewart's article also discusses the role of Eugene Keilin and his findings in the eventual settlement of the labor dispute that Gelb started with his threats to lock out the union workers. I wish there were even more details about this, especially about the findings.

I wanted to take a nice red pencil to some of the article, though:

1. Stewart uses the terms “average salary” and “base salary” without bothering to define either. I know what those things mean and people who follow the arts business know what they mean, but most NYer readers do not.

"Average salary" is what it sounds like: you take everyone's salaries, add them up, divide by the number of salaries. But "base salary" is the amount a musician gets paid as a new orchestra or chorus member who isn't a soloist. In the Met orchestra, this would mean, for example, a newly-appointed section violinist. The base doesn't apply to the concertmaster's salary (separately negotiated), to members who've gotten annual increases as a result of their tenure, and soloists, who get paid more than section players (for example, the principal horn). Base salary doesn't include overtime either.

2. He never provides hard numbers about what the orchestra and chorus cost beyond the disagreements about the chorister salaries.

3. There’s a paragraph where you might think that Gelb designed the Ring set, not Robert Lepage. That’s terrible editing, not worthy of the NYer, and something that ought to have been caught.

4. The references to Wendy White are out of place in a discussion of the artistic direction of the Met. The mezzo, a long-time soloist, was badly injured when a set collapsed under her. She has not sung since.

The article and people quoted seem to blame the production itself for what happened to her, but that kind of incident is better viewed as an occupational health and safety issue. Somebody didn't properly secure the set, and if the design made this more likely, that problem should have been caught at the initial construction of the set or when the Met performed a safety inspection.

I wish the article, overall, had been even longer and deeper than it was; I'm extremely curious about what might have been left out or cut to avoid legal issues or endangering inside sources.

In any event, this week's NYer has responses from the Board and from Alan Gordon of AGMA, and they are entirely predictable:
  • Kevin Kenndy, Ann Ziff, William Morris, and Judith-Anne Corrente are "disheartened" and defend the Met with all the best buzzwords without addressing any substantive points made by Stewart. Please tell us, in detail, about the Met's finances and how you're going to work with Gelb to get the company back on a decent financial footing, instead of spouting the kind of garbage any PR person, and I include amateurs such as myself, can put together.
  • Alan Gordon is "disappointed" and rails against the board and Gelb's "out of control" spending.
The third letter, from an audience member, is on the money in expressing his dismay about the Met's finances, although I think that his comments about "controversial" productions is a vast oversimplification about what's been going on at the Met.

* A total aside: I asked both Tommasini and the Rubin Institute for a copy of this speech, and neither provided it to me. I was not there and I hesitate to say too much about a speech I have not heard or read.

** David Gockley, for example, is a proven master at working with wealthy donors, which has resulted in a much larger SFO endowment and funding for a long string of new works. SFO has also had labor peace during his tenure. Operatic general directors everywhere could learn a lot from him.


Anonymous said...

The major problem I had with the article was that it just recycled a bunch of old news (enough with the Prince Igor poppy field already!). Is it news that there are members of the Met board whose taste (and probably politics) range from conservative to arch-reactionary? I think the problem is that the New Yorker is a general interest publication and this article is really not intended for "informed" readers. I thought of this while reading an article about Gerry Adams and his alleged ties to IRA violence. I found it interesting and informative--it might be a rehash of old news to someone who closely followed "The Troubles" and the peace process.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You're absolutely right about that; I think 90-95% was old news. That the Met board is conservative isn't anything new, but I did find it helpful to have some more details, and to know more about how the board works.

Dr.B said...

My reaction was that it started off interesting and went rapidly downhill.
Second season ticket drop off is supposed to be normal, especially with non-standard operas like The Nose. If you can't afford this, don't do it.