Gustavo Dudamel’s salary hints at a good-value return

Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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In New York next month, Gustavo Dudamel will receive the award as musician of the year for 2013 from the publication Musical America. In Los Angeles he might well have been the bargain of the year for 2010.

The recent filing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s federal tax return for 2010-11 shows that Dudamel earned $985,363 in salary and benefits for 2010, his first full calendar year on the job. In comparison, at least 12 conductors and executives earned $1 million or more from nonprofit arts organizations in the United States that year.

In 2009, Dudamel was paid $395,002 in his new job as the L.A. Phil’s music director that began with performances in October.

Examining tax returns for the Phil and other arts organizations in the city makes it possible to compare the earnings of a range of creative and executive positions.

GRAPHIC: High earning conductors

Dudamel’s 2010 earnings didn’t even make him the highest-paid conductor at the corner of First and Grand. James Conlon earned $993,696 as music director of Los Angeles Opera, which performs in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, across the street from the L.A. Phil’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The opera paid Plácido Domingo $1.4 million in 2010 as its general director and sometime performer — including $475,000 deferred from previous years. The annual earnings of Dudamel’s predecessor at the L.A. Phil, Esa-Pekka Salonen, fluctuated year by year, peaking at nearly $1.6 million in 2005.

Like many conductors, Dudamel doesn’t have a single job — he also leads the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela; Conlon is also music director of the Chicago Symphony’s summertime Ravinia Festival.

Dudamel’s earnings prospects at the L.A. Phil might have received an as-yet unrevealed boost early in 2011, when the orchestra made sure he’d stay put by renegotiating his first five-year deal, with an extension into 2019.

The Phil has seen attendance gains early in Dudamel’s tenure. Its tax returns document a 21% overall increase in ticket sales for orchestral performances in L.A. over his first two seasons — although he does not conduct every performance. (The gains were in part because of 10 additional concerts during the 2010-11 season.)

GRAPHIC: High earning art executives

In 2008-09, the season before Dudamel came, a shrinking economy had pushed attendance below 500,000 for 135 concerts at Disney Hall and the much larger Hollywood Bowl, down from 613,805 in 2006-07. The draw rebounded to 601,294 in 2010-11 for 145 orchestral concerts at both venues.

“There is no doubt Gustavo Dudamel’s directorship contributes to the L.A.’s Phil’s success,” said orchestra spokeswoman Sophie Jefferies. “We continue to see his concerts selling at or near capacity.”

In less Dudamel-specific areas, the Phil’s 2010-11 tax return shows that it remained the biggest-budgeted orchestra in America thanks in no small part to its expansive Hollywood Bowl season. The L.A. Phil’s spending rose from $97 million to $104 million. Behind L.A. are Boston Symphony Orchestra with $83.5 million in expenses, followed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

The L.A. Phil’s revenue fell back a bit, from $113.8 million to $110 million, primarily because of a decline in donations from $38.5 million to $33.1 million. But earned income rose $1 million and expenses were kept under control.


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Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, saw her earnings rise 14.6% during 2010, from $1.4 million to $1.6 million. That made her apparently the second-most-highly compensated arts manager in America — up one notch from 2009. She leapfrogged Glen Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art ($1.56 million) but trailed Reynold Levy, president of New York’s Lincoln Center, whose compensation dropped nearly $230,000 from 2009 but remained ample at $1.77 million. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, earned $1.35 million in 2010, a 20.6% increase. Govan’s contract was renegotiated and extended in mid-2010, and his earnings for the year included deferred incentive payments.

The J. Paul Getty Trust provides more up-to-date information than most arts groups on its top employees’ pay, having resolved to go beyond the minimum reporting requirements as part of its emphasis on financial transparency after its mid-2000s scandals over improper spending. James Cuno, the Getty Trust’s president, is due to earn $1.1 million in pay and housing allowance for the 2012-13 fiscal year — although $100,000 of it is a delayed incentive payment contingent on completing his five-year contract.

Timothy Potts, who began as the Getty Museum’s director on Sept. 1, will earn a $690,000 base salary plus a $150,000 signing bonus and unspecified moving expenses. The most highly compensated Getty Trust employee typically is James Williams, the vice president and chief investment officer responsible for managing the huge endowment that generates nearly all its revenue. Williams earned $1.21 million in salary and retirement plan contributions in the 2011 calendar year; the Getty says he gets a base pay package of $852,000 plus incentive payments pegged to how well its investments perform.

Many onlookers shake their heads in disbelief over the big bucks pulled down by some nonprofit executives. But it should be noted that arts executives’ jobs are not the same as running a business, where the only thing that really matters is profit.

Besides the managerial skill to lead a staff and the artistic and fiscal savvy needed to develop a strong creative program within a prudent budget, an arts executive’s job involves getting people to do something for nothing. They have to be able to recruit and motivate volunteers, including trustees who not infrequently are highly privileged people used to having their own way. Crucially — and this is a skill that turns the common bottom-line business transaction upside down — executives must woo donors whose largesse usually dictates whether an organization can become, or remain, top-tier.

An exception is the Getty Trust, whose leaders traditionally haven’t had to raise money aggressively, instead concerning themselves mainly with trying to manage the endowment’s proceeds wisely, while praying that the markets don’t swoon. Realizing that prayer might not suffice, Cuno has begun a move toward more active fundraising.


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