May 21, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal | It's not likely that the cultural institutions in New York City trying to prevent Mayor Michael Bloomberg from following through with plans to cut taxpayer subsidies expected the story to shift from how much these groups stand to lose to how much the heads of these organizations make. According to the Wall Street Journal, tax-records show that the compensation packages for top executives at some of the better-known groups are in the six- and seven-figure range.

Topping the list is Reynold Levy, president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, whose compensation last year was nearly $2 million, followed closely by Steven Sanderson, CEO, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, at $1.6 million. Right now, more than 30 cultural organizations that operate on city-owned property face $35.5 million in total cuts, or about half the public subsidy they received this year.

While the release of the compensation packages – which, the Wall Street Journal notes, "can also include housing allowances, deferred compensation and bonuses, in addition to base salary" – has "raised eyebrows in some corners," city council members who back these institutions say the pay packages distract from the bigger story. "The reason that we have a shortfall in the city budget and the reason that these institutions and organizations are facing enormous budget cuts is not because of the compensation that the directors receive," said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat who chairs the council's cultural committee. "The truth is the magnitude of the cuts that are being proposed [is] so enormous that even if you paid some of these directors less, it's like a pebble into the ocean of what these institutions are facing."

Representatives of other institutions with highly paid executives, or at least those who responded to the Wall Street Journal for comment, also defended their compensation practices. Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where compensation for three veteran staffers exceeded the $929,725 that Director Thomas Campbell received, said, "The city reasonably expects the Metropolitan Museum . . . to have the best international administrative and curatorial management to harness and make the best use of all the funding sources that come into the Met."

Still, it wouldn't be surprising to hear some people let out a roar as word spreads about the hefty compensation package for the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which claims that cuts to the Bronx Zoo, one of the four it runs in the city, would be "catastrophic."—Bruce Trachtenberg