Museums and the Salary ConundrumPosted: January 26, 2016
Since we spent our last post talking about new leaders, here’s another big elephant in the room: paychecks. How little is too little? This week, among the job announcements that float across Museum-L were two from a state museum system. That’s important because state jobs–unlike private employers–list their salaries. They were, broadly defined, educator’s positions, which seem to be among the most poorly paid in a poorly paid field. The starting salaries were $29,500.
Yesterday I interviewed a graduate student. She’s enrolled at a highly regarded program in California. She is one term into her master’s program. She also just got a coveted internship in a distinguished art museum. She is older than the average graduate student, has worked in the museum world before, and already has a subject-based masters. She’s married to someone with a full time job. That’s the good news. The bad news? She has more than $20,000 in loans. She has at least three semesters and a second internship to complete before receiving her degree. She lives in a very pricey area. She loves her program, which admittedly seems dedicated to placing competent students with good museums, but when I asked if anyone had talked to her about how long it will take her to pay off the loans at a starting salary of say $40,000, the answer was no.
A year ago while a group of us were teaching in the Getty Leadership Program at AAM, one of our colleagues completed a hire via phone. Our colleague returned to the group with a new employee on board, but looking puzzled. He reported that the new hire had simply said yes. No negotiation, no questions about benefits. Just yes.
I offer these stories because they are all facets of a bigger problem: 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.
I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I think it’s time we started talking about what’s acceptable and what is not. So for all you trustees and human resource committees out there, please understand that hiring someone isn’t a solution if the salary you are offering isn’t more than a living wage. Don’t know what that is? Visit MIT’s living wage calculator: Living Wage. When I put in the town where the jobs mentioned above were advertised, I discovered that if, as a newly-minted graduate, you are offered the starting salary of $29,500, you would make approximately $3 more per hour than that municipality’s living wage. And the living wage is just that. You can cover your expenses, but that’s it. Need I point out that the $24 per day in excess of your living wage won’t allow for much in the way of a daily latte, drinks after work much less a new car payment?
Part of good leadership is recognizing the value of staff. Good staff, happy and contented staff push organizations forward. They make change. They make things grow like endowments and visitation. Staff looking for their next (better paying) position aren’t focused on their jobs. They are discontented, worried and cranky, and they always leave sooner than you expect them to. Why? Because they’re discontented, worried and cranky. So…if you’re thinking of starting a museum, don’t hire unless you can pay someone better than a living wage. If you already run a museum, as a trustee or director, maybe it’s time you had a frank discussion about salaries and how they do or do not drive your institution. And if you’re in the job market, for goodness sake use the living wage calculator to find a baseline. To be really fulfilling a job should feed your soul and your bank account.
And tell us what you think and how you’re managing.