Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Open Secret of Non-Profit Arts Organizations

Here’s a fun activity: Choose your favorite arts organization. Maybe one you work for occasionally.  Go to the Foundation Center 990 finder (Foundation Center 990) and type it in. Download their form for the tax year of your choice. Check out Page 5, 6 or 7, Compensation and Key Employees. Then think about what the artists make.

I did this recently with a company I work for – a company where artists’ fees (already below average) were cut last year because of tough economic times. This is also a company (like many others) that has ceased paying artists for their yearly orientation because they “can’t afford to” anymore. In reading their 990 –  I found out that they paid a consultant $120, 000 in 2007 and that the Executive Director made $154,000 a year plus benefits, with a yearly increase of about $4000 to $5000.

Excuse me? What? You’re asking your artists to work unpaid; You decrease their substandard hourly rate;  You provide no guarantee of employment and no access to health insurance and your executive director makes $154,000 a year plus benefits?!?

I really can’t believe the gall. Here’s another fun activity. Do it backwards. This is actually how I was introduced to this delightful little secret. My boyfriend looked at this company’s 990 and then asked me if I recognized some names. (I didn’t know most of them. They were the top earners at the place I work, why would I?) Finally, he found a name I  knew. He said, “You know this guy?”


“You have some idea of what he does?”

“A vague one. I see him at meetings and stuff. He gets CC’d on my emails.”

“How much would you think would be fair to pay this guy?”

I think for a while.  I guess, “I don’t know. Maybe – $45,000?”

“Triple that and you’d be a lot closer.”

It’s a fun game. Aside from the fact that it made me cry. I mean, this Executive Director makes more money than an investment banker in a non-profit dedicated to putting arts in the schools. The “product” that this “factory” makes is Art and the makers of that Art, are us, the Artists. So far this year, I’ve made $5,494 at this organization. No benefits. And after working for these folks for years, I’ve never even met the other people in this agency making 6 figures.

Now, I’ve got no problem with people in the arts and non-profit worlds making a lot of money. We should support the people who do this sort of work, of course. But the ridiculousness of the gap between the artists (scraping to survive in the months when there is no work, everyone I know is looking into food stamps at this point) and the executives who are making big bucks on what we do needs to narrow. I really don’t know how this organization has the nerve to lower artists’ fees and ask for free labor when its Executive Director got another $4/5K raise last year. I really don’t know how they manage to look us in the eye. Oh, wait, they mostly don’t. I’ve only met one of the four top earners in the company.

I haven’t done this with my other employers yet. I’m not sure I can. Once the scales fall from your eyes, it’s hard to put them back. The next time I see that guy who makes over $154,000 a year, I’m only going to see a dude who makes $154,000. It’s going to make it harder for me to smile and nod, which is something that I am required to do in order to continue getting work each year.

What is to be done in this case? I have no authority or power at any arts institution I work for. Because I’m not hired anywhere, no one would have to fire me to get me out of their hair; They can just easily NOT give me any more work and that pesky artist who asks too many questions would be gone for good. So, I’ll be smiling and nodding at meetings as per usual. But, I’m writing this now to let the rest of you know what’s happening. Maybe knowledge can be power instead of making me cry. Let me know what you find.

Side note: Sometimes the 990 finder is a little picky about the name of the organization. I spent forever trying to find an organization and got foiled because it was all one word in the system. Also, lots of organizations file their taxes under a different name. Apparently, Mark Morris Dance Group is AKA “Discaled.”  If you can find the organization’s EIN number, you’ll have a much better shot at tracking them down.

This will help, too. It tells you how to read the 990.

990 Tutorial

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