Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ars Gratia Artis: Joe Spaulding's mega payday

A few weeks back, Geoff Edgers of The Boston Globe reported that Joe Spaulding, head of Boston's financially-struggling Citi Performing Arts Center, had been granted a $1.265 million bonus. The bonus timing was poor: a few weeks later, the Center announced ultra-steep cuts in its annual Shakespeare on the Boston Common production.

Quite a bit was made of Spaulding's salary (note: not bonus) as taking a disproportionate bite out of the Citi Center budget. The article noted that Citi Center paid Spaulding 6.5% of its $6.3 budget, a far higher proportionate take than at other "premiere" performing arts centers. (In contrast, the head of Washington's Kennedy Center was paid a higher salary than Spaulding,but that salary represented less than 1% of the Kennedy's far larger budget of $141 M.)

And quite a bit was made of Spaulding's receiving such a large bonus in light of the losses the Center has been experiencing.

Like a lot of arts centers, Citi Center is hurting, and has run budget deficits for the last five years. (For the last fiscal year reported, the deficit was $2.7. The next year's deficit is predicted to far less substantial, due to budget cuts and an infusion of money from Citi, which bought the naming rights. The whole shebang used to be called the Wang Center. The Wang name is still used on one of the theatres that make up the Center.)

However nice a guy Joe Spaulding is - and there is certainly no reason to believe that he is anything other than a hard working and admirable individual - you have to ask just what he did to earn that hefty bonus.

It was billed as a retention bonus. But this raises some eyebrows and questions. Wouldn't a bonus be more sensible if it had been tied to hitting some targets: revenues, expenses.

It just seems like an awfully, awfully large bonus to retain someone presiding over annual deficits. Maybe the bonus was put in play when the Center was profitable, and it made sense to make extraordinary efforts to keep Spaulding around. Maybe it should have been renegotiated to include performance bogies other than just staying on board. (Note to non-profit boards: careful with those retention bonuses.)

While, according to The Globe article, "the center declined to say when the payment was made, and where it came from the budget," the Chairman of the Board for Citi Center, John Poduska, was not so reticent - even if his message is still rather opaque as to where the bonus money came from.

In the wake of The Globe article, Poduska posted a note (since removed) on the home page of Shakespeare on the Common. Poduska's note denied that "the compensation paid to Josiah Spaulding is directly affecting some of the Citi Performing Arts Center’s public programming, namely Free Shakespeare on the Common."

Poduska further goes on to underscore the Board's support for Spaulding, and states "Spaulding’s compensation in no way affects existing or future programming initiatives."

But how can that be?

The money has to come from somewhere.

Sure, it's possible that big donors and board members pitched in to put the bonus package together, earmarking their donations for Spaulding's bonus rather than programming. It's possible. Improbable, but possible.

I know a lot of people involved in the arts. Most are writers and artists, but some are in the performing arts.  Perhaps foolishly, perhaps nobly, most of them live for their art at the cost of financial stability and material comfort. I know a brilliant poet who ekes out a meager living stringing together ill-paid adjunct teaching gigs. I know a very fine essayist who's a medical transcriber, and another gifted writer who clerks at Trader Joe's. A few years ago, I saw a painter carrying a ladder into a building nearby. He looked familiar: I'd seen him in a play a few weeks before.

Some people do indeed strike it rich in the arts. But there aren't many of them.

I also know that it's hard to keep arts non-profits going, and Joe Spaulding's job cannot have been easy. (Nothing of the magnitude of Citi Center, but I'm on the board of a writing-related non-profit, and have done some volunteer work for an arts center. I have no illusions whatsoever that arts organizations are easy to keep afloat.)

Shortly after Joe Spaulding's mega payday, the number of performance for Shakespeare on the Common was cut way back. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Maybe not.

But it's hard not to think of how many actors' paydays could have been accommodated by just a portion of Spaulding's bonus. And hard to believe the bonus had no impact whatsoever on programming.

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