Ruthless Deborah Rutter says she’s taking no pay

Ruthless Deborah Rutter says she’s taking no pay


norman lebrecht

March 29, 2020

Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter has told the Washington Post that she’s giving up her $1.2 million salary for the duration. ‘My hope is that these circumstances don’t last forever, but I’m going to be a realist,’ she said.

Her players will get no pay from the end of this week and no health cover from the end of May.

‘It’s a leadership issue,’ she said. ‘This is what a leader does.’

The WP did not press her further.

Rutter’s decision is the most brutal yet in America’s Darwinian musical environment and it comes after President Trump pumped an emergency $25 million into the Kennedy Center.

She has not communicated directly with the musicians.

Meantime, we hear President Trump took a call last week from a lobbyist for the League of American Orchestras.


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    If I was in her position I would regrettably make the same decisions. These are not normal times.

    • Irma says:

      For arts organizations who lean so far left, it’s quite telling to have such gross “income inequality” remain acceptable after all of their fundraising and leftist programming…

  • RW2013 says:

    She shouldn’t be earning 1.2 in the first place.

    • Peter says:

      I hope that when this corona nightmare is over, that the CEO of a non-profit institution, like the National Symphony Orchestra, will never again earn an annual salary of $1.2 million. This situation is unique to the United States and hopefully, if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will put an end to such practices. I have absolutely nothing against a person earning any amount of salary in the private sector, but if a person choses to work in the non-profit sector, for an organisation that lives from the generosity of donors, then to expect to receive compensation equal to a banker or a CEO in the private sector is immoral. U.S. orchestras spend an enormous amount of their time, far too much, trying to get rich and less rich members of their communities to donate to keeping their orchestras alive. How can they then justify paying Deborah Rutter, or any of her colleagues, compensation in the seven figures? It is a disgrace, unique ONLY to the United States and it will see the demise of their orchestras. Paying their chief executives private sector CEO compensation, being non-profitable themselves and actually not even having an orchestra superior to what we can see and hear in Europe, in Berlin, Vienna, London or Amsterdam.
      When a person choses a profession, they should chose it out of passion and commitment. A nurse, especially at this moment, has a job that is extremely demanding, full of risk and is not paid extremely well anywhere. Yet, men and women chose to become nurses, because they are committed to that profession, even though it does not pay particularly well for the responsibility and devotion that it requires. The same goes for many professions. Sadly, in the United States, they believe that you can chose to work in the arts/non-profit sector as an executive and benefit from a salary equivalent to working in the private for profit sector. It just does not add up and I hope that the likes of Deborah Rutter will never again receive exorbitant, for a non-profit, pay packages and I hope that in the future donors will NEVER contribute to any non-profit where the CEO demands a Wall Street investment banker’s salary. It is obscene and will one day spell the end of the arts in the U.S. A.

      • Larry says:

        Those of us who work in arts management do it for the love and passion we have for our art form. A very few make high salaries; most of us do not. Trust me. You have “nothing against” a person earning a huge salary in the private sector. Why? Don’t private companies have an obligation to their stockholders to control costs?

        I’m 66 years old and earned my first pay check as a musician when I was 16. I never expected to get rich in this field but I didn’t take a vow of poverty, either.

        Ms. Rutter’s job is enormous, certainly akin to running a for-profit business of the same size and scope. Her salary, and those of a very few other arts managers, have nothing to do with the current state-of-affairs in the U.S. classical music business.

        • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

          You are correct. She is one of the best in the field. They had to steal her from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps she and Deb Borda are the two star administrators. Volpe is retiring in Boston. The guy in SF is good too.

        • Guest says:

          She is not CEO of the National Symphony, she runs the Kennedy Center, the larger institution.

        • James says:

          Do you mean to say that they cannot find another equally competent administrator who would perform Rutter’s job for much, much less? Perhaps $200 or 300k? In fact, why stop there? People volunteer completely for free, for MUCH more taxing and stressful positions.

      • Tamino says:

        I agree, but by your logic neither should conductors or soloists command such fees that gives them seven figures yearly incomes. Or where and why do you draw the line?

      • Hal Hobbs says:

        She is not the CEO of the National Symphony.

    • MacroV says:

      Why not? The Kennedy Center is a huge operation; her decisions have multi-million-dollar implications; and she’s the best in the business. What do you think is the appropriate level of compensation for such a position?

      • Anon says:

        A business based entirely on connections and a business very few people get to attempt
        “the best in the business?

        I’ve been around these types of people for a very long time.

      • The View from America says:

        A position like this is essentially a 24/7/365 one. As the director of an enterprise that performs outside of regular business hours and also requires non-stop fund-raising — much of which is done outside of regular business hours as well — you’re always “on.”

        This isn’t what the leadership is like in many other professions.

        On top of that, DC is an expensive place to live — easily one third more costly than most other regions of the country with the exception of parts of California, the NYC metro area and Boston. Even Chicago is relatively “cheap digs” by comparison.

        Having said this, I consider compensation north of $1 million per year to be excessive, and not at all necessary to attract top-notch talent to steer the ship. If organizations of this kind cannot find someone of quality to take the position for $500K per annum plus reasonable office perks, they’re not trying hard enough.

  • Athos says:

    $25M would pay for a lot of weeks. The virus seems like an opportunity she didn’t want to miss.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Except that the money goes to the Kennedy Center as a whole, of which the orchestra is only a part. I don’t know the fraction the orchestra would get, but it would certainly have helped carry salaries for some time.

      • Sima says:

        They are being let go, April third is their last check, 25 million but they won’t use it to help any staff.

  • Larr says:

    Have you ever run a multi million dollar or pound company?
    Yes, the KC and other companies have or will receive some money. But will it be enough?
    You seem to always complain about difficult decisions that CEO’s make, but you don’t have all the facts. So if everyone gets paid how do you pay the enormous deficit on the other side. I can imagine you would say those deficits we’re mis- management.
    It’s easy to criticize but not easy to run an organization of any size.
    I’ve worked for Ms. Rutter in the past. She is a thoughtful, careful, smart and decisive leader. Why don’t you look at the big story with some facts and then write a thoughtful blog.

    • Vdvdw says:

      Thoughtful? Really? She just pushed a 250 million usd white elephant upon the arts center that is nearly useless. She failed to foresee this predictable negative publicity avalanche for failing to work with her artists to find a solution. Ms Borda in comparison shows what leadership is really like.

      • Skorthos says:

        I think the Reach project was already well under way when Ms. Rutter took the job. On the other hand, I agree completely that she should have worked with the members of the orchestra to find a solution rather than unilaterally and abruptly cutting off their paychecks.

  • Gustavo says:

    I wish I would earn 1.2 in a single year. I could then retire.

  • Larry says:

    Does anyone know if the $25 million had any conditions attached to it, i.e., that it could or could not be used for salaries?

  • Music lover says:

    Why in the world she is getting 1.2 million for this position?

    • Laura says:

      Because she runs the entire Kennedy Center, not just the orchestra. It is an enormous job with many moving pieces and parts. Her salary is actually significantly less than it would be for a similar position in the private sector, which she could have, given her skill set and experience.

      • Larry says:

        Well said!!

      • Vdvdw says:

        If she’s so wonderful let’s see what job she gets after this. The fact is she’s woefully under qualified and an absolutely feckless leader. Remember that at her previous job she was loathed by all especially by Muti.

        • MacroV says:

          If she was loathed it doesn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t good at her job. And she is the one who got Muti to Chicago.

        • Robert Levin says:

          I know many of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra players and board members personally and can state for a fact that Deborah was not loathed by all in Chicago. Furthermore, she is hardly an irresponsible individual. I am not defending her actions regarding the National Symphony Orchestra, but I imagine there is more to the story than what meets the eye. By the way, she is the one who was responsible for Muti coming to Chicago in the first place – give credit where credit is due. It is a well known fact that Muti wants to control the show in Chicago, which is more than likely one of the reasons Deborah left the CSO for the Kennedy Center.

          • Joe the Relic says:

            Thank you, Mr. Levin. Totally agree with your comments. I was a CSO staff member for over 14 years between 2000 and 2019, including 6 pleasant weeks working in Deborah’s office.

        • Joe the Relic says:

          Yes, there were some who loathed her, but not all. Muti? She is the one hired Maestro Muti. Many of the comments that I have read about her are sexist.

  • LARR says:

    She is the CEO of the entire Kennedy Center, not just the National Symphony.

    • Guest 123 says:

      Incorrect. She is not a “CEO” she is president of the Kennedy Center, which oversees the NSO. There is an executive director of the NSO, Gary Ginstling. He should not be left out of the blame.

      • LARR says:

        CEO/Pres…same thing. I well know Gary is the ED of the National Symphony, but their finances are controlled by the Kennedy Center since Henry Fogel days.

  • Manuela Hoelterhoff says:

    Now that Deborah Rutter and Peter Gelb have relinquished their salaries for a while where are the others? According to the most recent 990s, Deborah Borda received $577,959 for not quite four months after joining the New York Philharmonic in September 2017 with Jaap van Zweden, music director designate, down for $168.000. I suspect their compensation held steady in 2018 and 2019! Van Zweden continues as top baton in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Yannick Nezet-Seguin was paid $1,380,667 as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I would be surprised if he earns substantially less as the Met’s music director. Add to that a life appointment at the Montreal Orchestre Metropolitain. Now’s the time for boards to ponder such absurd salaries and the commitments that do not seem to be part of the package. For instance: staying put for a while and becoming part of a community’s cultural, social and educational fabric.
    Manuela Hoelterhoff was executive editor for culture at Bloomberg News from 2004-2014. She is the author of Cinderella & Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli.

    • Bone says:

      I detest this attitude. If a person chooses to forgo their salary for whatever reason – noble or otherwise – it is ridiculous to expect others to follow suit “just because.”

    • The View from America says:

      In my view, the statements I made above pertaining to the executive director position apply to music directors as well. All you need to do is change a few words:

      A position like this is essentially a 24/7/365 one. As the music director of an enterprise that performs outside of regular business hours and also requires non-stop fund-raising — much of which is done outside of regular business hours as well — you’re always “on.”

      On top of that, DC is an expensive place to live — easily one third more costly than most other regions of the country with the exception of parts of California, the NYC metro area and Boston. Even Chicago is relatively “cheap digs” by comparison.

      Having said this, I consider compensation north of $1 million per year to be excessive, and not at all necessary to attract top-notch talent — of which there’s gobs when it comes to conductors. If leading orchestras cannot find someone of quality to take the position for $500K per annum plus reasonable perks, they’re not trying hard enough.

      • Tamino says:

        many self employed/free enterprise jobs are 24/7/365. nothing special that requires seven figures compensation.

        • Pacer1 says:

          Are any of those ‘self-employed’ people responsible for 209 employees?

          • Tamino says:

            You mean, responsible, as in firing them in the middle of a world wide pandemic without health insurance after two months? That kind of responsible?

            Everyone can be responsible for a big ship in smooth weather. Easy job.
            How you act when the ship hits an iceberg in bad weather is where you can show what you are worth as a responsible leader.
            Throwing everyone into the cold water is usually not considered the pinnacle of responsibility.

            Unless you define the responsibility being only toward the number at the bottom-line, not to people.
            That would have some logic, even though a most despicable one.

          • Max Grimm says:

            @ Pacer1
            If being responsible for 209 employees justifies 7 figure compensation, why is it that doctors or pilots aren’t getting 7 figure salaries, although they are arguably responsible for the lives of hundreds to tens of thousands of people every year?

          • Pacer1 says:

            They are responsible for the safe operation of the airplane, not the employment of its passengers. Big difference.

          • MWnyc says:

            In the United States, many physicians do earn seven figures.

          • Tamino says:

            Yes, it’s part of the problem why that country has such a messed up and inefficient health care system that serves the corporations, not the people.

          • Big Liberal! says:

            THAT is why health care is “unaffordable” plus the hospital and insurance companies.

            They all need to experience some “income equality” and be forced to reign in both their salaries and billing practices!!!

          • MacroV says:

            There are a good number of doctors who are getting 7-figure compensation.

    • Brian Bell says:

      Good to see your words. I’ve missed them.

  • drummerman says:

    Norman: Trump took a call from a lobbyist of the League? Surely you jest. I’ll bet one hundred dollars that Mr. Trump has never heard of the League. Perhaps you are referring to the conference phone call President Trump and VP Pence had with about 150 leaders of national nonprofits to discuss the virus situation. Jesse Rosen, the CEO of the League, was part of that conference call.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      He did. I have the lobbyist’s name.

      • drummerman says:

        I am absolutely astonished. I understand that a lobbyist for a multi-billion dollar corporation might possibly have access to the President but the League of American Orchestras? Yikes. I’ve been a card-carrying member of the League since 1984. The League has 2 full-time “government affairs/advocacy” staff members in Washington but I am not aware that either of this is a registered lobbyist. (And they are both female, thus could not be described by you as “he.”) Did he tell you what the topic of discussion was? Very weird, indeed.

        • Stuart says:

          Are you sending Norman $100?

        • M2N2K says:

          The word “he” in NL’s comment very clearly refers not to the lobbyist but to Donald Trump because it was made in response to your question in which the POTUS (who according to latest available information is still male) was the subject.

        • union musician says:

          What action is Hillary Clinton doing to help save the arts and more importantly, the artists?

          • Bill says:

            Hillary is retired from government service and has no background in arts management. Not sure why you are expecting her to do anything…

  • Musician says:

    This Deborah is NOT like the other. Shame…..shame……shame…..

  • Dispensable says:

    Are Rutter and the rest of the management giving up their healthcare – in the middle of pandemic nonetheless? Should I worry about the health coverage for David M. Rubenstein and the rest of the trustees…can’t seem to find them on the I hope not – musicians are dispensable, billionaires and ruthless managers are precious.

    • Bill says:

      Trustees are not employees and generally do not get healthcare directly provided by the organization. I haven’t looked at the IRS Form 990 filings for the Kennedy Center organization, so I don’t know what compensation, if any, their trustees receive, but in my experience, trustees for a performing arts organization are not compensated like the board members of for-profit firms. Rubenstein can probably afford to pay cash for his care, no matter how sick he might get, but probably gets a Cadillac policy from the Carlyle Group.

    • Guest 123 says:

      Board members of non-profits receive no compensation or benefits, so no, Mr Rubenstein would not be losing his healthcare from the Center, as he never had it with them to begin with.

      • Dispensable says:

        I never said nor implied that any of the trustees receive pay or benefits from Kennedy Center, but I’m certain that they can afford to pay for musician’s healthcare during the pandemic. Not doing so is despicable.

        • Bill says:

          There seems to be a misconception that becoming a board member or trustee of an organization makes one personally liable for any shortfall or expense. That’s not how it works…and in my opinion, it would be a mistake to adopt that model.

  • Skorthos says:

    “Deborah Rutter has told the Washington Post that she is giving up her $1.2 million salary for the duration…”
    I have seen this in a number of places and it makes me wonder. Did she give up $1.2 million, or did she give up the $100,000 per month she is paid every month? If the “duration” is 2 months, is she going to squeak by with only $1 million for the year? Only $2,700 every day?
    I can only hope that she has an expense account (like so many other top executives) to help defray the cost-of-living in a city like Washington, DC.

  • Guest 123 says:

    We should not forget that this must have been done with the NSO’s executive director, Gary Ginstling. He should share equally in the blame.

    According to several articles, the musicians had been attempting to discuss with Gary Ginstling what they could do to aid the Kennedy Center and he did not respond.

    Further, from what I read in some of Deborah’s statements, her senior staff only took a 25% pay cut. Looking at previous compensations in the 990’s you could surmise that there is a large group of employees still making 200ks-300ks. Are they all forgoing their salaries now too?

    • Skorthos says:

      Michael Kaiser once commented on a management/musician compensation battle that was playing out in newspapers. He said, “When a battle like this goes public, everyone loses.”
      I think Guest 123 hits it in paragraph two above…Gary Ginstling and the NSO musicians should be working on a plan to help the Kennedy Center. But this would require rational, respectful discussion, an atmosphere that is difficult to attain after the person across the table (Deborah Rutter) has reached across and punched you in the face.

  • Joan Rosser says:

    Hear hear! In a world where we are now forced to contemplate what is really valuable, the greed being made public will hopefully re set our view of the world and force the unthinking to think. It’s an il wind.

  • mary says:

    The $25 mil goes to the Kennedy Center, not the National Symphony, and certainly not to 96 musicians. Greedy, greedy little pig.

  • Doug says:

    Rutter is one of the best administrators in the arts. She has a teremendous record in LA, Seattle and Chicago. She has only respect for musicians and further is CEO of a huge and complex Institution that also exists in a political world with accountability to federal government. In that context and environment $25 million mostly keeps the operations from total shutdown. And symphony musicians in the major cities earn from a starting salary around 175,000 to $500-600,000.
    For some concertmasters. Not middle class in a country with terrible poverty. Her giving up salary is in no way insignificant and actually she is treating herself the same as musicians. Let’s not blame arts executives for a world that has a real emergency and a government that has yet to meet what the populace and essential services really need.

    • Skorthos says:

      Are you an administrator by any chance? If so, I am not surprised that you admire Deborah Rutter. I am a musician, so I come at this issue with a different history and some skepticism based on hard experience. For example, I find that every administrator, from “among the best” to the worst of the worst, likes to talk about the “family” of music making. We are a “family” and we all have great respect and love for each other. But come crunch time, some administrators continue to feel the responsibility for the people who make up such an important part of any performing arts organization. Look up Deborah Borda.
      Others have a different message for members of the family when things are tough: “You are on your own. I am too busy looking after the interests of (insert name of the arts organization)” Look up Deborah Rutter.
      I am sorry to be so disagreeable, but I also disagree with your statement that “$25 million mostly keeps operations from total shutdown.” An administrator might say that. I only know what I read in the papers, but didn’t the $25 million appropriation specifically mention salaries? Maybe the Kennedy Center should hire more administrators to keep the operations going. Hire enough of them and maybe they can play the concerts. Though, if the Center is going to hire top-notch administrators like Deborah Rutter, they will only be able to pay 20 of them for a year with $25 million. On the other hand, they could pay a lot of top-notch musicians a pretty decent salary with $25 million.
      Which brings me to your statement about starting salaries for major orchestras. I believe there may be a couple of orchestras with starting salaries above $150 K, but most are considerably lower than that. And administrators love to throw out the $500,000 to $600,000 statement, then, sotto voce, say “for a couple of concertmasters.” Or, as I believe Deborah Rutter has done in orchestra negotiations in the past, claim that the “average salary” for orchestra members includes the very highest salaries of, for example, concertmaster, principal strings, winds, and brass, when she knows that 90% of the musicians are not making anywhere near that amount.
      Finally, no one here has blamed Deborah Rutter for the pandemic. It happened, it is here, and now how do people deal with it?
      Some administrators called in the representatives of their “family” and had a discussion. Hard choices were forced on all, but they made those choices together, just like a family might.
      Deborah Rutter, in a conference call with NSO representatives, said “Next week is your last paycheck.” Not a great way for the head of a family to deal with a crisis, and it does not really show “only respect for musicians.”

  • Yelena says:

    I was shocked to find out what happened to the National Orchestra musicians and what was the salary of the Kennedy Center director.

    To my opinion, this all is outrageous! I had no idea that she was getting this enormous amount of money – and that she basically made an amoral decision to leave her musicians without the paycheck!

    This is unacceptable!

  • Michael says:

    The tragedy of the performing arts in America. Paying Rutter $1.2 million is obscene. I remember when the KC opened and how, for many years, it was a temple of wonderful music and theater and ballet. But America values not what art, music, dance and theater bring. It’s always been on a hope and a prayer that arts organizations survived. Covid will put many of these out of business. One tragedy among many these days in the USA.

  • Allan in Evanston says:

    Has no one asked how much esteemed ‘Maestros’ are being compensated but performing NOT-AT-ALL’?