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Business Conductor 

The city needs to stop subsidizing the S.F. Symphony and other snobby arts organizations that cater to the rich.

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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These are trying economic times — unless you're Michael Tilson Thomas, the baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is one of a troika of symphony honchos who, when you include money allocated to agents and personal projects and a personal loan, drain $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers.

San Francisco fine arts nonprofits such as the symphony have consistently failed in their mission of instructing residents in what they should accept as great culture. That patronizing mission would be outdated even if they were earnest about pulling it off. But they're not: They've turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.

As the symphony helps create a recession-proof standard of living for Tilson Thomas, the city finds itself contributing to the kind of superstar worship that makes a farce of classical music. Meanwhile, the tycoons' wives behind the nonprofit that runs the de Young Museum are turning the museum into an extension of their own closets, producing fashion shows featuring clothing that regular San Franciscans could never afford.

The megawealthy can do as they please with their money. But we can choose not to have them play with ours. Legislation recently introduced by the lame-duck Board of Supervisors claims to target fat-cat executive directors of government-funded nonprofits, but it's worded so that its effect on mammoth salaries earned by such directors as Tilson Thomas will be nil. In January, newly elected supervisors should put their radical pretensions to work and find real ways to excise taxpayer subsidies from the city's exalted cultural institutions.


According to the most recently available information, during the 2005-2006 budget year the S.F. Symphony paid $1.6 million to MTT Inc., the corporate entity set up by Joshua Robinson, Tilson Thomas' longtime companion. The symphony paid Columbia Artists, which represents Tilson Thomas, another $538,000, and $601,000 to a Mill Valley videomaker who produced a series of "created by Michael Tilson Thomas" PBS television shows starring — who else? — Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition, the symphony paid executive director Brent Assink $442,000 in total compensation and gave him a $63,500 relocation loan, according to IRS filings. Tilson Thomas also received $429,000 in compensation.

He's worth it, you might say, because he's San Francisco's cultural treasure. Okay. But he's the cultural treasure of Miami, too, where he spends three months a year as artistic director of the New World Symphony, which, according to its most recent IRS filings, paid $575,000 to Columbia Artists under the budget heading of "music director." To further make ends meet, Tilson Thomas spends spare time as the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. That doesn't include the additional lucrative array of record sales and other ways MTT Inc. earns income.

It might be argued that the symphony's video budget to produce the PBS shows Keeping Score shouldn't be perceived as a direct benefit to Tilson Thomas, but it's worth looking at because it's the public face of a business strategy unrelated to serving the public interest. That strategy goes like this: Promote the music director so that he becomes an even bigger star, then shovel ever more cash and perks to the self-created celebrity to keep him aboard.

In 1935, after the symphony went bankrupt, voters relaunched it by establishing a permanent taxpayer set-aside for the orchestra, currently $1.8 million per year. A lifetime later, that quaint act of civic-mindedness — resurrecting the orchestra — has grown into a monster bent upon enriching one man. As fine arts institutions turn toward commercial success and placating rich donors and away from the public interest, they eliminate all rationale for government subsidy. What's more, taking the symphony off the dole would have a pianissimo effect on its total budget, which in 2005 was $63.6 million.


While the symphony cultivates a business-minded form of idol worship, across town the high-society philanthropists behind the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums have produced a pathetic caricature of the same. Rather than business logic, their commerce-minded idol worship seems motivated by self-flattery.

Last year, the de Young hosted a huge exhibition on fashion designer Vivienne Westwood; this year, the museum insists we need to learn more about Yves Saint-Laurent, with a "blockbuster" exhibition on the designer running through spring. Led by margarine fortune beneficiary Dede Wilsey, these swells have turned the museum into a rich person's fantasy wardrobe — then charged the masses to look. Recent figures show the museum drawing $2.8 million in direct subsidies, while benefiting from massive indirect subsidies in the form of running it on city land and ensuring the rest of Golden Gate Park is available as a parking lot.

San Francisco's city charter calls for the Board of Supervisors to give the Fine Arts Museums enough money to adequately run their facilities. Board of Trustees president Wilsey has demonstrated time and again that she doesn't need a penny from us. Her $30 million 2005 annual budget could have done fine without the $2.8 million from the city.

A new bill introduced by outgoing Supervisor Jake McGoldrick is touted as an attempt to cull the city's taxpayer-funded fat cats. A version to be considered at next week's finance committee hearing will ask that nonprofits not use city money to pay executive directors more than six times the salaries of their lowest-paid employees. Noble stuff, although there's nothing in the bill to prevent nonprofits from claiming that the portion of the budget paying the executive director comes from private donations. Already, Joe D'Alessandro, the overpaid executive director of the nonprofit SF Convention & Visitors Bureau, claims his salary is paid from donations and not from the $328,000 it receives from the city.

The only nonprofits immune to this loophole would be those that are almost entirely funded by the city. It so happens that the handful in this category are social service agencies that pay their directors $100,000 to $150,000, modest salaries for the directors of multimillion-dollar organizations, and quite within the bounds of McGoldrick's legislation. Indeed, his office couldn't tell me of a single nonprofit that would be affected by his bill. Even if there were one, there's nothing to say others can't do as the San Francisco Symphony does, and pay their head honchos as "independent contractors." In other words, McGoldrick's crusade is meaningless. It would be more effective to deal with these agencies in the normal way for a city that happens to be $100 million in the hole, and withhold money from those not serving the public interest.

As for the symphony, the incoming Board of Supervisors should end its subsidy by putting a new charter amendment on the ballot rescinding the 1935 set-aside that could also be worded to relieve us of the burden of supporting Wilsey's museum trustees. San Francisco's swells are capable of enriching a multimillionaire classical music celebrity and "educating" the citizenry about haute couture without our help.

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Matt Smith

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