The Museum Salary Conundrum & a 21st Century Salary Agenda

Written by Mike Murawski

In recent years, there has certainly been increased awareness and discussion about salaries within the museum profession.  I can speak from my own place within the field of museum education when I say that this has become a very frequent (and more urgent) topic of conversation at conferences, leadership convenings, and professional meetings in recent months.  Thanks to the efforts of museum activists involved with movements such as Museum Workers Speak, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, protests at individual museums, and several leaders in our field, we are seeing an increase in awareness around museum labor practices, hiring, and worker pay as well as the intersection of these issues with race, gender, and class.

Last week, Joan Baldwin wrote an insightful and widely-read piece entitled “Museums and the Salary Conundrum” via the Leadership Matters blog — a site that emerged in conjunction with the 2013 book of the same name written with Anne Ackerson and studying museum leadership in history and cultural heritage organizations. In her post, Baldwin so clearly and boldly frames the problem of museum salaries:

“we work in an underpaid, under-resourced field. And for too long, too many people have told us that it is such a privilege to participate, that we should suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re thirty and still need roommates to pay the rent, and revel in the fact that we have a museum position.”

Joan quickly followed her post with another this week entitled “The Salary Agenda,” in which she and Anne take a stab at what they think a Museum Salary Agenda for the 21st Century could look like.  I really appreciated this action-focused series of items, which can begin to help the conversation focus on real change — from professional organizations and institutions to graduate programs and individuals.  Here is a quick repost of their Agenda, and I invite everyone to read their entire post and add comments to the already-active conversation on their blog.

From Leadership Matters:

What Professional Associations and Museum Service Organizations Can Do: 

  • Establish and promote national salary standards for museum positions requiring advanced degrees.
  • Encourage museums to demonstrate the importance of human capital in their organizations.
  • Make salary transparency part of the StEPS (AASLH) and accreditation process (AAM).
  • Support organizations in understanding the need for endowment to support staff salaries. A building and a collection don’t guarantee a museum’s future. People do.
  • Create a national working group for #Museumstaffmatters.

What Institutions Can Do: 

  • Encourage networking and individual staff development.
  • Make every effort to provide salaries that exceed the Living Wage.
  • Educate boards regarding the wastefulness of staff turnover.
  • Make criteria for salary levels transparent.
  • Examine the gaps among the director’s salary, the leadership team and the remaining staff.
  • Offer equitable health and family leave benefits (and make them available on Day One of a new hire’s tenure).

What Individuals Can Do: 

  • Do your homework. Understand the community and region where you plan to work.
  • Use the Living Wage index.
  • Be prepared to negotiate. Be prepared to say no. A dream job isn’t a dream if your parents are still paying your car insurance and your mobile phone bills.
  • Ask about the TOTAL package not just salary. If you are the trailing spouse and don’t need health insurance but do need time, make that part of your negotiations.
  • Network. Know what’s going on in your field, locally, regionally, nationally.

What Graduate Programs Can Do:

  • Be open about job placement statistics
  • Teach students to negotiate salaries and benefits.
  • Teach students to calculate a Living Wage plus loan payments and quality of life.
  • Encourage networking, mentoring and participation in the field.

Just as Joan and Anne are not speaking from a position of having solved all these problems, neither am I.  However, I wanted to share their recent writings and ideas as a way to ensure that this conversation remains strong within the field of museum education.  As we enter the spring season of conferences (AAM, NAEA, etc.), let’s make sure to keep these issues at the forefront of many of our conversations about diversity, inclusion, and leadership and work toward making appropriate and necessary changes within our professional organizations and institutions.

Thank you to Joan (and Anne) for sparking another important exchange around these vital issues to our field, and thanks to all the museum thinkers and activists pushing this issue through Twitter chats each week and in-person meet-ups across the country.

100+ participants at the #MuseumWorkersSpeak rogue session at AAM 2015. Photo from Museum Workers Speak.

Header image: Flickr photo by Tax CreditsCC BY 2.0




8 thoughts on “The Museum Salary Conundrum & a 21st Century Salary Agenda”

  1. This conversation, most especially Joan Baldwin’s thoughtful piece, should be sent to the chairs of boards of trustees/directors of museums and cultural institutions. We current and former museum professionals are painfully aware of the disgraceful pay scales in our cultural institutions, which, I might add, are frequently economic engines for localities, but we need to bring this conversation to those who set policy and budgets.

    1. Agreed, this must be brought to the “powers that be” in organizations, and to graduate school directors/leaders. More education must be encouraged when it comes to learning about the wage issues in this field.

    2. I totally agree, Maribeth! Getting this information outside of museum professionals is vital. I think there is a need for more frequent and productive conversations between museum staff and trustees, directors, and funders about how to solve some of these issues.

  2. This is such an important conversation to have. My adviser in grad school was very up front about what we were facing, but also worked incredibly hard to make sure we built a solid network in DC and had plenty of internship/job opportunities. I hope all grad schools work this hard for their students.

    However, while AAM should take steps in making salaries more transparent and more of an issue, they should also take steps to make their conference affordable to those in grad school and recent graduates… It’s impossible to use their network when museum employees can’t afford to even partake in their discussions.

    1. Sydney, thanks for your great comments. Yes, the issue of registration cost for conferences is something that needs more discussion — although there are more and more free, open opportunities for professional development and networking online these days, and this is an area that is growing. With all the museum blogs, free open online publishing forums, virtual conferences, online communities, and social media interactions that exist now, there are so many more ways to present your ideas and network with others than just attending large professional conferences. But I’m not sure how much that gets shared with grad students (most grad students I speak with in art history, studio art, or museum studies programs have no idea of these resources available — and many sadly do not use social media to network and create a presence/identity for themselves as they search for jobs and enter professional careers).

  3. Thanks for this article, Mike. Salary is one of the most obvious issues with setting out to have a career in the arts and many of us are naturally worried about students not having enough information beforehand.

    What can also be helpful is to research the types of jobs available at museums. How many of each are available and how often they appear … i.e. there are many more development job postings than curatorial. It can also help see what skills are in demand so we know what to work on to make ourselves more competitive.

    We run a search engine for art jobs that might help in this regard.

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