Code Red for the Museum Education Profession

Written by Brian Hogarth

Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.

The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.

For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.

The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.

An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.

The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?

Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.

Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.

The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.

This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.

Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.

The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.

About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.

If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.

The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.

 

 

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