News & Notes: How much does the Oregon Symphony pay Carlos Kalmar?

We don't know, and the symphony isn't telling...why that's a problem

Yesterday in News & Notes, the top story went to the contract extension through June 2018 of Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar. A simple story, really, though one piece of crucial information was missing: The press release never mentioned how much Kalmar was going to be making.

So, I perused the music director salaries on orchestra consultant Drew McManus’s website, Adaptistration, and found Kalmar listed, though the most recent 990 tax form that McManus had was 2010-11. I cited the number and Adaptistration: It was a little more than $450,000, a number I’d seen used for Kalmar before. Given both the increases in music director salaries and Kalmar’s stature with his base in the symphony community, I felt safe in suggesting that Kalmar’s new salary would be larger than the one three years ago.

But at midday, I received an emergency phone call from the communications department at the symphony, and the messenger said I’d have to remove that $450,000 number because it was incorrect. Kalmar’s yearly fee was lumped in with other independent contractor fees. The clear implication was that he made less than what McManus listed.

I told her that ArtsWatch seeks to correct all errors, and I asked what Kalmar’s salary was three years ago. She wouldn’t say. I asked what Kalmar’s new contract called for. She wouldn’t say. She only said that the $450,000 number was wrong.

Why wouldn’t the symphony disclose Kalmar’s salary? Policy. The symphony does not disclose the salaries of its employees.

She invited me to call Janet Plummer, one of the symphony’s co-presidents, for further comment. Plummer and I spent 20 or 30 minutes on the phone, during which I argued for greater transparency at the symphony regarding the salary of its highest-paid worker, and she resolutely restated the policy and asserted that the symphony has met transparency requirements because it complied with the rules of the IRS’s 990 form. (The 990 is the basic tax return that nonprofits file. It contains fairly detailed revenue and expense numbers, and seeks explanations for possible conflicts of interest for board members, among other things. Plummer’s salary is listed, for example. The website Guidestar collects them.)

Finally, I asked Plummer what happened at the symphony when two essential principles came into conflict, the privacy right of the individual and the right of the community to make informed judgments and decisions. At that point, she said she thought I was trying to trap her and that she’d talk to legal counsel and get back to me.

Actually, it was a philosophical question and as such, open-ended. There was no “correct” answer and no “trap.” The lawyers probably wouldn’t be able to help.

****

Carlos Kalmar/Photo by Leah Nash

Carlos Kalmar/Photo by Leah Nash

At this point, I have to say that, personally, I don’t really care what Kalmar’s salary is. Whether its $150,000 or $450,000 matters a lot to Kalmar, perhaps, but not to me. I wish Kalmar nothing but moonbeams and BMWs!

It’s only important in particular contexts. One of those is the context that McManus provides, the salaries of music directors of American orchestras. The fact that McManus, who knows his way around a 990, was unable to correctly peg Kalmar’s salary on that list is a problem both for the list and for the Portland public’s understanding of where Kalmar fits into the national scheme of things. If he was working for $150,000, we’d consider him underpaid (and symphony management shrewd bargainers). We might decide that $450,000 was the high end of what a symphony with the budget of the Oregon Symphony’s should be paying its music director, but still within the bounds of reason, given Kalmar’s musical success with the orchestra.

McManus says finding music director salaries is “usually a very straightforward process. “The only slight curve ball is when a MD [music director] is a private contractor and has a corporation name other than his/her birth name. But even then, it isn’t hard to find and I have yet to encounter an orchestra that was unwilling to verify the corporate/MD connection.”

Another crucial context, already implied parenthetically, is simply how the symphony conducts its business. If the music director was making $1 million a year at an orchestra the size of the Oregon Symphony, then we’d wonder about its management and scrutinize other decisions it made.

Why should the symphony want to disclose this information? Because it receives public money and support from its own community. Donors of whatever kind (government, foundations, individuals, corporations) want to give to responsible stewards of their money. Another reason: by freely disclosing information about itself, the symphony builds trust.

This all seems obvious to me. The point of my questioning of Plummer was simply to ask why the symphony was acting against its self-interest in this regard? And the answer I was given – because we don’t think we have to reveal Kalmar’s salary on the 990 form – isn’t sufficient, at least for me.

****

Nonprofits must fill out the IRS 990 form, and they provide a wealth of financial data. I found it interesting that neither Drew McManus nor I could figure out Kalmar’s salary from the Oregon Symphony’s 990. The other symphonies I’ve checked list the music director, either by name or title, either among the top salaries or largest contractors. For example, I just dropped in on the Seattle Symphony 990 from 2011-12 and saw that music director Gerard Schwarz made $583,854. Apparently, the Oregon Symphony wasn’t reading the requirements of the 990 form for 501(c)(3)s in the same way as Seattle was.

It’s possible to do a little digging, of course. On its 2011-12 990, the Oregon Symphony lists Cramer/Marder Artists in San Francisco as a contractor. Carlos Kalmar is represented by Cramer/Marder. The “description of services” for the Cramer/Marder entry reads, “guest conductor and artist agent.” The amount is $326,000. So, presumably Kalmar made less than $326,000 that year (remember, Adaptistration’s number came from the year before). The “guest conductor” must have been on the Cramer/Marder roster that year, and we’d have to subtract his fee from the total to arrive at Kalmar’s salary. I have no way of knowing how much that guest conductor spot paid, but we have a pretty good idea that Kalmar made around $300,000 that year, considerably less than $450,000.

So, why so coy about the actual number?

Well, that’s the point: Transparency is crucial for nonprofit arts groups. The refusal to disclose something as basic as the salary of the music director leads to that other question: why? It’s not a privacy issue: nonprofits are supposed to disclose this sort of information. If Kalmar was hired by the LA Philharmonic, his salary would be public knowledge: Gustavo Dudamel’s was $1,425,088 in 2011-12. I’m not prepared to debate Plummer’s interpretation of the legal requirements of the questions on the 990, but I’d argue that the spirit of the document is to reveal things like the salary of the highest-paid person at the organization.

I asked McManus, via email, why the music director’s salary is important information to disclose in the first place, and his interpretation of the 990 requirements differed from Plummer’s: “The reasons are many but the most important is it is required by law. The IRS and Federal Government have clearly defined reasons behind the need for disclosing compensation for nonprofit employees. The rules are regularly reviewed and updated; case in point, the IRS revised the reporting thresholds a few years back and expanded the reporting categories for employees over that threshold. It all comes down to transparency.”

Transparency again: If the public is going to have faith in the financial and artistic good sense of an orchestra, knowing how much it is paying its top employees is important. It goes beyond that, of course. Releasing attendance figures (which Plummer agreed to do, by the way), average salaries of orchestra members, the amount paid for guest artists (which she refused to do, citing the policy), and the top-selling item at the snack bar are important, too. Well, maybe not that last one. (White wine? Pretzels?) That way, those of us who care about the health of the symphony can track it ourselves. It would answer a lot of questions, and maybe raise a few good ones, too.

Another question follows: If you won’t disclose something this basic, what else are you keeping secret? And why do you feel the need to keep secrets in the first place? Do you think the symphony’s community of audience members can’t be trusted to draw reasonable conclusions from the information? They’re going to think what I think: Kalmar’s compensation, so far as I can figure it out, sounds about right, given the going rate for music directors (which I can find out at Adaptistration, a list that the Oregon Symphony subverts just a little bit by not clearly disclosing Kalmar’s salary).

And the public at large? They’ve grown accustomed to truly massive executive salaries in the corporate world. What’s a few hundred thousand to them, or rather, us?

Another step: If everyone in the symphony’s community was aware of such things as attendance figures and the cost of guest artists, they might offer interesting information in return—about how to attract more people, or how critical those guest stars are to their interest in the symphony. Maybe they’d lay off the white wine and the pretzels and move on to coffee and cookies. And maybe they’d tell you that those huge fees just aren’t worth it.

Don’t you build a community, an engaged community at least, by trusting them with information and asking them for their ideas about problems as they arise? In orchestra after orchestra around the country, board and staff find themselves at odds with musicians and audiences, primarily because they think of them as 1) the help, and 2) the customer. They don’t understand that their subscribers aren’t volume consumers: They are the orchestra itself. Give them the power and the responsibility, and they might surprise you with their flexibility and their creativity. That goes double for the musicians.

I happen to believe that the Oregon Symphony is behind the major West Coast orchestras in its programming evolution. Dudamel, Schwarz, and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco (the 2011-12 990 lists the music director as an independent contractor with compensation of $2,030,468) conduct more music from the 20th and 21st centuries. But I don’t know for sure what the result would be if Kalmar went that direction.

What would happen if he explained what he wanted to try to his community (staff, board, musicians, audiences) and the public at large, what he hoped to gain by it, how much he needed their responses to the various programs he had in mind? I’m just naive enough to think something good might come of it. And what would happen if he asked the audience for help in solving the “graying of the audience” problem? I have a feeling they’d have some good ideas, and they would respond favorably to experiments the orchestra might try, if they were explained to them.

That’s a different kind of arts organization, and one in which a Red Alert over a salary figure wouldn’t be necessary.

****

At one point in our conversation, Plummer suggested that I call Kalmar and ask him what his salary was, is and will be. She even gave me his number, and I left a message: Hey, Carlos, how much do you make?

The reality is that I have a close enough understanding of how much he has made in the past to consider it reasonable. The actual dollar figure isn’t that important. I’m more interested in the contract extension, both because it’s interesting to see how the board values his contribution monetarily and how it fits into the increase in music director salaries nationwide. Because I think that the symphony operates in a professional, rational way, I don’t think I’d be surprised by the details of the new deal. They would probably simply confirm my overall impression.

But is the symphony being rational in its decision to keep that information secret? When seemingly no one else does? When it raises so many unnecessary questions? When it runs against the spirit of openness?

And see, this is where it gets me: If they are being irrational in this matter, what other blind spots does the Oregon Symphony have? Is my general very positive assessment of how they do business accurate? What is their rationale for the programming decisions they make?

If Plummer gets back to me with a resolution of the philosophical question I posed, about how the symphony resolves collisions between personal interest and community interest, I’ll let you know. The same with Kalmar’s actual salary and the details of his extension.

It’s actually in the symphony’s interest that you know.

4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    why the silly secrecy?

    put the cards & shekels on the table.

    my guess is that the figure WILL become known & i believe it is in the OSO’s best interest to make it available as prontissimo as possible.

  2. Patricia Johan says:

    It’s likely that something in Kalmar’s contract prohibits the Oregon Symphony management from publicly revealing his salary (except as required by law on the 990). If that’s the case, it is probably at Kalmar’s request, not because symphony management has a big secret to hide. Maybe you should probe harder at Cramer/Marder. They are Kalmar’s managers. How about some better journalistic research here?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      It is the SYMPHONY’S policy that keeps Kalmar’s contract secret. That was established by good journalistic practice: an interview with the co-president of the symphony. She could have said: Kalmar’s contract prohibits us from releasing this information. She didn’t. If you know something about music directors and their contracts that makes you think that it’s “likely” that Kalmar’s insists on secrecy, that would be interesting, though. Of course, we can figure out how much other music directors make, just not Kalmar.

      • bob priest says:

        ah, so the silliness prevails, eh?

        well, sadly, this little secret will probably fester &/or morph into additional unseemliness that the OSO would be best advised to avoid – especially during these trying times.

Comments are closed.

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