How Peter Gelb fixed the Met’s accounts

Slipped Disc editorial

There was muted acclaim for Peter Gelb’s announcement last week that the Met had turned a $22m annual deficit into a $1 million surplus, despite a continuing box-office decline. Credit where it’s due: he has balanced the books.

But three caveats remain.

– Saleroom observers point out that Gelb has been selling the company’s silver – specifically a piece of jewellery made in 1855 for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and donated to the met by the singer Lucrezia Bori. It fetched $2,330,929 last October at Christie’s Geneva. Without that sale, Gelb would have been in deficit again.

– Next, still fighting a widening gap, Gelb plans to sell naming rights to the Met’s space at Lincoln Center.

– Thirdly, union negotiators are demanding to know why he took the company to the brink of closure in summer 2014 when he had all these assets to call in. Some are accusing him of outright deception.

Gelb has pulled off a balancing trick, but it’s not a triumph, let alone a long-term solution. The Met cannot carry on losing subscribers to death and disinterest. It has to find a winning new formula to place it once more at the centre of New York’s attractions. Nothing in Gelb’s latest announcement suggests he has scratched the surface of that crisis.

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  • This is a temporary fix, a way to buy time, but it is in no way a solution to the serious and critical long-term problems that face the Met. It is also not a good sign that Mr. Gellb had to resort to selling off the family’s heirlooms in order to feed the family. This must be seen for what it is and Mr. Gelb should not be congratulated for having “balanced the books” in this manner. The public waits to see if he, or somebody else, is able to address the key issues that have led the Met into this disastrous situation and whether Mr. Gelb has the creativity and ingenuity to reshape the business model of the Met. Selling your family treasures is not a creative, nor even an intelligent, response to the issue, but rather a desperate and most basic and simple way to get cash quickly. I am not convinced that Mr. Gelb is the right man for the job.

  • It seems to me totally logical that the Met opted for some short term solutions while they search and explore long term solutions. Had the Met not used short term fixes what would the unions and other critics have said. It is easy to criticise but I don’t hear any solutions to seemingly ineluctable problems being offered.

  • The sale of the “Bori broach” was suspect, at best. Why those who have possession of Madame Bori’s last will and testament did not contest the sale is inexplicable. The State Attorney General and the Hispanic Society should have taken note.

    After nearly a decade, the long-term solutions could have been instituted a long time ago; principally by reining in expenses – directors being given carte blanche, needless overtime rehearsals, incredible growth of the number of upper management (several “payback” jobs for Sony Classical cronies), needless initiatives (the art gallery, costing hundreds of thousands a year), and, of course, Gelb’s inflated salary.

    Of course, the board is ultimately to blame. As unsympathetic as Ronald Perelman is, he is on the correct track when he insists on transparency between staff and board. His battle cry could and should have reverberations with the State Attorney General. Sad that a few bad apples tar the image of all nonprofits.

  • And his specific comment on decreased subscription seemed to be that despite that, he had made it work by raising the prices. That is NOT a prescription for turning sustained attendance around. A lot of people find it too expensive to attend.

  • Is it all right to use ‘disinterest’ now, when surely what is meant is ‘lack of interest’?
    I expect more of this column 🙂

    • And it is a word that should be fought for. As Nicholas Blake had a character observe in a novel many years ago — even then, the rot was beginning to set in — it is a a beautiful and valuable concept, disinterest, and there is no synonym for it. I first read that book when a student — I think it was A Question of Proof — and it comes to mind every time I see that lovely word used instead of the correct one, “uninterested.”

  • I see nothing wrong with buying time, as long as everyone is clear thats what it is. People do it all the time while they figure how they are going to turn things around in the longer term. Whether Gelb can do it is questionable perhaps, but I have no problem with his actions covered in the article above.

  • I believe that Mr. Gelb knows exactly what he is doing. There has been many rumors that the Met needs to shut down for a couple of years to revamp the building and backstage area to keep up with the times. In fact they have a 60 million dollar + budget to do just that. I believe that the ultimate goal is to bankrupt the current business model rip up the current contracts close the doors for a few years and start over with a clean slate. This will allow the Met to move ahead with the planned renovations without having to pay the backstage employees during this process. The truth of the matter is that the Orchestra and Chorus have two years left under their current contracts and the Stagehands have three. It has been stated by several Met employees that the Met has been trying to reinterpret the current contracts with all of the unions. A day does not go by without some new argument of how the current contracts are worded and should be paid. In fact the Met hired a lawyer for several thousand dollars a day to do just that. The new normal is to argue the wording of the contracts and pay wages the way they interpret them not the way they are written and have been paid since the beginning of inception. The next step involves filing a grievance and calling a meeting between the Met and the concerned Unions and of course the Met’s high priced Lawyer. This process can take up to three consecutive meetings with no solution causing tension between employees and management. I strongly believe that in two years when the Orchestra and Chorus’s contracts are up we will have a repeat of the labor dispute of two years ago and a lockout will happen. This will allow the Met to renegotiate with all of the unions.

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