Now, some of the politicians who approved the grant are among the loudest critics. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) this week introduced a bill to rescind the funding, which he described as “frivolous spending in the midst of a national emergency” and House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) called the job cuts shameful. “If an organization is receiving assistance from the federal government, we expect them to take care of their workers,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chair of the House subcommittee that funds the arts center, promised to review the staff reductions.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Kennedy Center has decided to furlough employees. It was our clear understanding that with this financial relief, layoffs and cuts to benefits would be avoided,” McCollum said in an email to The Washington Post on Thursday. “I will be doing my due diligence on oversight into the Kennedy Center’s actions.”
The arts center’s board of trustees is required to submit a report by Oct. 31 to the House and Senate appropriations committees “that includes a detailed explanation of the distribution of the funds provided,” according to the stimulus regulations.
The political backlash comes as Kennedy Center President and CEO Deborah Rutter continues to defend why her organization needs federal help even as it temporarily sheds more than half its staff. Almost 800 part-time and hourly workers were laid off in mid-March, the 96-member National Symphony Orchestra was furloughed last week, and this week 250 members of the Kennedy Center’s administration, about 60 percent, were told they would be furloughed without pay for five weeks starting Monday.
The outrage is extending to the box office, too. John Nellis, 81, of Bethesda had agreed to donate the $380 he spent on four tickets and a parking pass for a canceled performance by the New York City Ballet. But, after reading about the furloughed musicians, he’s decided to ask for a refund.
“I found it difficult to take, hard to stomach,” Nellis said. “I would like to take that money and donate it to a worthy charity that is trying to feed people and help people out.”
Nellis said he is sympathetic to arts executives who are faced with difficult decisions, but he is especially dismayed that the Kennedy Center furloughed staff after receiving significant federal aid.
“I thought it was unfair to take it out on these guys. It seemed a bitter blow,” he said.
Thousands of patrons had tickets to the 431 performances already canceled as part of the closure that continues until at least May 10. The arts center reports that about 90 percent of tickets are being refunded, despite its pleas for them to be donated or exchanged for future shows. The refunds put additional pressure on the organization’s finances.
Initially, Rutter said the $25 million in federal aid would be used for the center’s mission as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
“This money isn’t going to us as an arts center but as a memorial,” she said in an interview with The Post on March 26. “This money isn’t going to pay for programming.”
The budget breakdown released earlier this week paints a different picture.
The largest portion, $12.75 million, will fund six months of salaries of the roughly 150 employees still on the payroll, most working in finance, marketing, programming and the box office, as well as the salaries of those they hope to bring back from furlough as soon as possible after mid-May, such as the musicians of the NSO.
“Spreading out the $12.75 million throughout the summer enables us to bring staff and musicians back on payroll when we can more confidently forecast a realistic reopening date,” Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews explained.
In 2018, the center had 232 employees earning annual salaries of $100,000 or more, according to tax filings, and at least 13 earned more than $200,000, including Rutter, who is paid $1.2 million a year but has renounced her salary until the pandemic recedes. The center also pays NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda, Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and a roster of artistic advisers such as Renée Fleming, Q-Tip, Mason Bates, Jason Moran, Ben Folds and Mo Willems. Noseda is not being paid as a result of the canceled concerts, according to Andrews. Pay for the others is either being deferred or reduced, she said.
About $7.5 million of the bailout will cover six months of benefits — pension, social security and health care — for all employees, including those furloughed. The center continues to negotiate with its insurance company to fund health-care benefits after May 31. Another $1.75 million is for future artists’ contracts and fees, and $1 million will pay the rent for off-site properties, including the Washington National Opera administrative offices and its Takoma Park studio, the Kennedy Center’s archive and production warehouses.
The $2 million balance covers deep cleaning and IT upgrades resulting from the virus and other administrative expenses.
No one knows when the crisis will end, so the money might be the center’s only income for as long as six months, Rutter said. And even when the arts center does reopen, it’s unclear whether government rules will continue to limit the size of public gatherings or whether audiences will be comfortable returning to the theater.
“We are trying to conserve the cash for as long as possible,” Rutter said on Tuesday. The center also has a $10 million line of credit it can tap.
Critics have openly wondered on news sites and social media why the federally supported arts center — the largest in the country — doesn’t use its $100 million endowment to temporarily cover employee salaries by borrowing against or drawing directly from those funds. The Kennedy Center has decided against that approach. The endowment is already small, about one-fifth the $500 million required for an organization of its size, explained Andrews.
“If we were to draw any amount of funds at this time, it would further reduce our investment and make recovery and long-term fiscal health even more fragile,” she said.