Monday, October 12, 2015

Nonprofit Governance

Carnegie Hall, 1963, courtesy carnegiehall.org

It's a good day to think about nonprofit governance issues.
  • In this corner, we have the collapse of Gotham Opera, where the board had a little too much trust in the executive director, who evidently never recorded certain expenses, amounting to a cool $600,000, enough to sink a small-budget organization. The board of San Diego Opera ought to be feeling just a bit queasy right now.
  • In that corner, across town, we've got the kerfluffle at Carnegie Hall, where Board Chairman Ronald Perelman resigned after less than a year over issues with Clive Gillinson, the hall's executive director.
Russell Platt has an article up at The New Yorker about the situation at Carnegie Hall. I agree with Platt completely about the problems of having board members who somehow expect concert halls, which are nonprofit cultural institutions, to behave like profit-making businesses, especially financial sector businesses.

Platt raises an issue about which I don't completely agree with him:
But the reluctance of Gillinson and his staff to provide detailed information about profits and losses of particular concerts to Perelman and the board is entirely justified: if artists’ fees (which are often extremely high) at such a prominent venue as Carnegie were distributed to board members, the information would find its way to the Internet in a matter of days.
I agree that the Board should focus on raising money (and so on) so that Carnegie can continue be one of the great concert presenters of the world. It is very expensive to transport an orchestra from Boston, let alone from Vienna, for example. There is no way to make a profit on such a presentation.

But let's think for just a minute about the matter of artists' fees. This is a matter of great secrecy, though occasionally the curtain is lifted just a bit. Some years ago, for example, the tenor Roberto Alagna said that concerts were a great deal more financially beneficial to him than opera performances. He indiscreetly mentioned some numbers, and my recollection is that he said he could get paid $16,000 per performance in the US versus $60,000 for a concert in Europe.

I don't know a darned thing about what you get paid if an artist performing as a soloist with an orchestra or presenting a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. But I'm willing to bet that there's a big spread among newcomers starting out, big stars (think Placido Domingo or Lang Lang), solid performers, and legends such as Maurizio Pollini or Martha Argerich.

The leaked material from the Sony hacking case showed that female movie stars often get paid less than their male co-stars. I am sure that you are shocked, shocked to hear this: the case that I specifically recall is that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams got paid less than Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

So you've got to wonder about what we might learn if there were more transparency about artist fees, especially at a famous and important venue like Carnegie Hall. I've heard an awful lot of good music at Old First Concerts in San Francisco, played mostly by local musicians. I'm willing to bet that they are deeply underpaid compared to the groups and soloists appearing at Carnegie.

 Of course I'd like to know whether Daniel Barenboim gets paid more or less than Martha Argerich, or whether Christian Tetzlaff gets paid more or less than Leila Josefowicz. That's a fairer comparison than Barenboim and Argerich; he spends most of his time conducting, she doesn't play solo recitals any longer.

And speaking of investors, and profit and loss, here's something of interest to people in the Bay Area:
"We want people's first experience in the opera house to be resonant and to be exciting and to be to some degree comfortable, so that they will come back," Shilvock said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "So I think we have to treat the 'Traviatas' and 'Bohemes' very sensitively." 
 Unlike their European counterparts, U.S. companies have very little government assistance, which factors into decisions on operas and directors. 
[paragraph deleted] 
"Our patrons are also our investors, and because many of our core subscribers are also our most generous philanthropists, we need to make sure that our programming jibes with their expectations, what they'd like to see onstage," Shilvock said. "That doesn't mean that we have to be conservative. Many of them have very adventurous tastes and interests, but I think it does mean that we have to be careful about what happens on our stage."
That's Matthew Shilvock speaking, in an interview he gave to the Associated Press the week that he was appointed General Director Designate of San Francisco Opera. It's a little hard to parse what he means about treating the Traviatas and Bohemes "very sensitively;" he could mean no naked orgies on stage, or he could mean something different, like, we're going to perform one of them in alternate years.

But I am very concerned about "our patrons are also our investors." That is much too close to Ronald Perelman's apparent expectations or beliefs about how Carnegie Hall should operate, with both eyes firmly on the money. Patrons aren't investors; they are audience members. They support institutions because they trust the artistic mission of the organizations and trust the administrators.

I am also concerned about meeting the expectations of investors, I mean, patrons. Despite the protestations that we don't have to be conservative, that clause after the "but" certainly implies that the company doesn't want to upset anyone. And you should certainly think about how an opera by Gordon Getty might have made it to the stage at San Francisco Opera.


bgn said...

It's a little hard to parse what he means about treating the Traviatas and Bohemes "very sensitively"

No, it isn't. What he means, I think, is that he doesn't want to throw on such first-time operas as Traviata just for the sake of doing them, with relatively little preparation because, you know, people are going to come anyway and they're not going to notice if it's any good. It seems to me to be a preemptive strike against routine performances.

Lisa Hirsch said...

His statement is not nearly that clear, and could certainly mean "we're not going to have urinals or nudity on stage during these operas (or any others)."

Immanuel Gilen said...

Agreed 100%, Lisa (particularly on the issue of "investors"). Those types of statements always make the artistic leadership sound so passive - which is the last thing I want to hear. This might sound like a ridiculous comparison, but as I would never ask Alice Waters to prepare any particular dish because I like it, I don't want to suggest that, since I'm paying for my ticket at the opera, I need to determine what you're "serving" me. I think BAM does a phenomenal job of not falling into that trap - most organizations around Lincoln Center, however, do.

Looking forward to your thoughts on Shilvock as he starts to (co-)determine SFO's artistic course. I'm excited about his statement on French baroque, but I'll concede that's hardly trailblazing...

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is not at all a ridiculous comparison.

And yeah, BAM, but not LC. Around here....we get uncompromisng new music presented by Cal Performances, SF Performances, small new music groups, not so much by SFS (where being named Adams or Bates helps you get performed) and certainly not at SFO.

I have not yet posted about the Shilvock press conference, at which I asked a very blunt repertory question, Joshua Kosman asked a good follow-up, the Opera Warhorses guy asked a lengthy follow-up, and Shilvock ducked and weaved and refused to commit to anything.