In 2020, a year in which theaters were dark for nine and a half months, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis earned $1.15 million in pay and benefits, more than any other nonprofit theater leader in New York.
Eustis’ 10 percent jump in overall compensation — disclosed in the Public’s 2020-21 tax return filed with the New York Attorney General — runs counter to the company’s messaging about pandemic pay. In an April 2020 New York Times story about the cancellation of Shakespeare in the Park and planned staff furloughs, Michael Paulson reported that much of the remaining staff “will take up to a 25 percent pay cut. Eustis will take a 40 percent pay cut.”
The tax return, which details compensation for calendar year 2020, tells a different story. Eustis, one of the highest-profile figures in nonprofit theater since assuming leadership of the storied organization in 2005, was paid $901,000, up from $807,000 in 2019. Benefits and deferred pay were valued at an additional $255,000.
Stiff pay cuts were the norm at arts organizations in 2020. Todd Haimes, the Roundabout Theatre Co.’s CEO and artistic director, took a 36 percent reduction in pay and benefits, to $657,000. Lincoln Center Theater’s producing artistic director, André Bishop, took a 12 percent cut in pay and benefits to $1 million. (As Bishop’s voluntary 25 percent salary cut began in April 2020 — as opposed to January — the full 25 percent drop isn’t reflected in its latest return, a Lincoln Center Theater spokeswoman said.)
Haimes and Bishop regularly out-earned Eustis until the Public Theater chief negotiated a 10-year employment contract beginning in 2018 that lifted his annual package to seven figures. Some staffers and alumni have taken to calling the 64-year-old left-leaning leader a “Neiman Marxist,” a play on the luxury retailer Neiman Marcus.
Haimes and Bishop oversee the artistic and business sides of their operations. The Public’s finances, in contrast, are the province of its executive director, Patrick Willingham, whose overall comp increased 3 percent in 2020 to $499,000.
Eustis, Willingham and Public spokeswoman Laura Rigby didn’t respond to more than a dozen emails and calls over three weeks seeking comment about compensation. After Broadway Journal reached out to board chairwoman Arielle Tepper, Rigby replied that the Public “won’t be participating in this story.”
Thad D. Calabrese, associate professor of public and nonprofit financial management at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, reviewed the Public Theater’s tax returns for Broadway Journal and confirmed Eustis’ pay increase. Calabrese noted that pay cuts were restored at some large nonprofits in 2020 after they received federal aid. “I suppose it is possible cuts were reversed” at the Public, he said.
Another possibility is that a cut for Eustis late in the year wasn’t enough to offset an earlier raise, resulting in higher pay for 2020, Calabrese said. (Eustis, whose legal first name is Paul, teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.)
The Public — technically the New York Shakespeare Festival — is a significant business operation: revenue, public support and Hamilton royalties totaled $87 million in 2018-19, vs. expenses of $57 million. It weathered the pandemic better than it expected. After warning of a $10 million to $20 million deficit for 2019-20, it eventually disclosed an operating shortfall of just $4,526. Staff furloughs, originally slated for May 2020, were delayed by a few months because of a $4 million Federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
The Public’s silence about the pay is symptomatic of its lagging transparency. It doesn’t post its audited financial statements on its web site, unlike Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout. Nor does it make its governing documents available upon request, unlike Lincoln Center Theater.
A decade ago, the Public disclosed that it was developing a plan to deal with conflicts of interest among executives. “At this time, only the trustees are required to disclose” conflicts of interest, the Public said in its 2010-11 return. “A policy is being drafted to require the same of officers and key employees.”
That language — the Public is working on an executive conflict of interest policy — has appeared in every tax return since, including 2020-21.
Eustis was raised by Communist parents in Minnesota and although he strayed from the orthodoxy, “many of the values have stayed with me,” he said in a recent interview. Since succeeding George C. Wolfe at the helm of the Public, he’s positioned the institution as an in-demand launching pad for Broadway (Hamilton, Fun Home, Sweat), while working to push the art form forward and make it more accessible.
Its Mobile Unit presents free Shakespeare in homeless shelters, prisons and elsewhere. The interactive Public Works program offers classes via community organizations and the opportunity to create “participatory theater” — culminating in a production this month at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
In 2020, the Public made $1,000 grants to hundreds of freelancers and distributed a portion of its gala proceeds to community organizations. The company is said to be working on a plan to pay all full-time employees a living wage, which is about $53,000 a year before taxes for individuals without children in Manhattan, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.
Among longtime senior staffers, Associate Artistic Director Mandy Hackett saw a 6 percent drop in her pay and benefits in 2020, to $222,000. Production executive Ruth Sternberg’s overall compensation dropped 11 percent to $226,000. In the past decade, Sternberg’s annual comp increased about 25 percent, Hackett’s was up 50 percent and Eustis’ compensation tripled, in line with the growth of the budget.