Museums and the Salary Conundrum


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.

Joan Baldwin


72 Comments on “Museums and the Salary Conundrum”

  1. leezechka says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have left the museum field because of the lack of living wage. Any hint of talking about these things gets you labelled a trouble maker and greedy. It opens the door to internal theft and high levels of stress and resentment.

    It is particularly annoying when an employee is dealing with budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but is told they should be glad they receive a 29K salary and asking for more would hurt the museum. This leads to a beaten down and resentful employee who sees no reason to bother trying very hard.

    I was told by the HR department at a major museum that I and the other 30% of the staff that were leaving in a 2 month period were not leaving due to pay. I assured them that I was leaving because of the pay scale and so were many others. I heard through the grapevine for months that they were spending hours and hours trying to figure out why so many people were leaving, but refused to even consider the pay scale to be the issue.

  2. Melissa J says:

    Thank you very much for this post and raising this very important issue within the field. I am a recent graduate of a Master’s program and am currently job searching. I have been astonished about the number of jobs for which I have had to regrettably not submit an application because the wage and/or hours would not allow me to pay my mortgage and other bills. I live in the suburbs of Los Angeles and $10 to $15 per hour is NOT a living wage for someone who has an advanced degree, a house, and a family. As a field, it is imperative that we address this important issue.

  3. Sarah Wright says:

    I have worked part time at a distinguished art museum on the east coast for over three years, all while juggling multiple other jobs and a part time museum studies grad program. When I had interviewed for a full time position in the past, I was asked what my expected salary would be. I had done my research, and stated that 29-31,000 was appropriate. The interviewer laughed in my face and said many would die for such a number. She said the highest they would offer was 24,000. I did not take the job.

  4. Elizabeth Simon says:

    Lest we forget, there are (at least) two issues here: Not just making sure employees receive reasonable salaries, but also finding new revenue streams to make those salaries possible.

    • Yes, Elizabeth, but that means that museums and heritage organizations must commit to investing in staff.

      • MHBrown says:

        No, that is wrong. An institution cannot commit to “investing in staff” if the money is not there. No matter how much you wish it to be different, blood still cannot be squeezed from a turnip. It is a long road that begins with the community in which the museum is located. If they value their cultural institutions, they will support them. If they do so with $$$ that money will be distributed. As it is, the money is not there. It’s not like the top CEOs and Executive VPs are raking it in. Look at the wage range between the highest and lowest salaries in a museum. I’ll bet it is much more narrow than a for-profit company. The problem is what we value as a community. Don’t try to solve a problem by jumping into the middle of the solution. It begins with the community around the museum. The question really is do we give them what they deserve. And often what they deserve is nothing because they are not willing to pay for it. Our question to ourselves is then simple: are we all willing to walk away? Well, are you?

    • I one hundred percent agree MH. Museums run on a not for profit basis, even government supported ones. The only source of revenue is admissions, food, gift shop and donations. all are unstable and unpredictable. Wages come from the big pot. The so called “top” makes what they deserve and the rest gets what they are willing to accept, raises are hard to come by. We go into museums knowing what to expect. I still think the biggest source of the problem is too many museum studies programs.

  5. M.K. says:

    Funny. We talk about needing to get more money but my director makes $100,00+ a year, lives in a house that’s paid for on a golf course and I’m taking home $27,000 with a master’s degree and 3 years experience. With $70,000 in debt, I will never own a home, buy a new car or take a vacation. I’m also 31. But we need to find new revenue streams? This may also be the time to discuss salary negotiation. It was drilled into us that we would be lucky to get a job in the museum field after grad school. No one EVER mentioned salary negotiation. I think it is also telling that the museum field is still heavily staffed with women.

    • Harmonia Balanza says:

      Your last sentence hits the nail on the head.

      • Michael Breza says:

        I just attended two meetings this past week of local non-profit employees. I was the only male in both meetings. I work as the only male on staff at a non-profit. They (women) seem to be willing to take the low pay and too-much-work jobs. Perhaps the women should start the rebellion?

    • KAT64 says:

      M.K., your story resonates with me! I worked at a non-profit museum that did a salary parity study (wonder what THAT cost!). They compared our educator salaries to the salaries of other museum/non-profit educators & concluded we were doing OK or better & should be thrilled. The catch? They compared our director’s salary to president/CEO salaries at FOR-PROFIT institutions & naturally concluded he needed a raise! He lived very well – one of the best neighborhoods, golf course, fancy car provided for him AND his wife… and apparently thought we were all too stupid to notice the unfairness!

  6. Jim says:

    I worry about entitlement a bit here. If you have gone to graduate school to work in a museum, surely you did your homework (so to speak) and knew going into the program that the field is one that pays on the low end. Yet if you still decide to pursue the degree it sounds a little odd to me to on the other end to raise the call for higher pay because of the school debt.

    I agree that the field is underpaid, but I’m not sure that is the right argument to apply to challenge that.

    • GH says:

      While one of the author’s points was the high cost of entry to the field, think the larger point is the fact that we need to pay our workers a living wage, and that’s what this is about.

    • Hi, Jim.
      I’m not sure I agree entitlement is the word. Naivete maybe? I’m not sure a lot of graduate students are as hard nosed as you suggest they should be, although I agree that doing your homework in any field is definitely a good idea. My point was only that the vast majority of museum jobs either require or “suggest” a masters degree. So do law and MBA programs, but at least you know once you’ve paid for your law degree you’ll earn better than a living wage. Maybe the field needs to be a little forgiving about hiring folks with undergraduate degrees for lower paying jobs? Is what the graduate programs are delivering really so rarified that you need to commit to the degree before committing to the field? New graduate museum programs pop up everywhere and don’t necessarily caution students about a) the growing scarcity of jobs and b) the low wages. It’s not in their best interests to do so. Not a solution, just thoughts.

      • Jim says:

        I completely agree that our field should be far more forgiving in hiring folks without masters degrees. It is the jobs that require masters degrees that are perpetuating the racial disparities in our field. I would argue that many new hires with bachelor degrees (or even associate degrees) are just as qualified as “new hires” as those who have masters. Our field needs to look less at the paper a candidate brings to the position and more about the person themselves and what they offer to the organization. I am in total agreement that the masters programs probably are not offering much of value to the students and exist not for the benefit of the students, but of the institution offering them.

      • robertlfs says:

        According to the AAM Salary Survey for 2012, 40% of museum employees hold MA or Higher Degrees. By far the largest single category is the BA degree at 45%. When I have raised this to colleagues in the past, they have disputed that the BA folks are for nonprofessional positions. However, in reviewing, the following are the percent of BA by job category:

        Tech Preparator – 60%
        Exhibit Design – 58%
        Marketing – 78%
        Web Manager – 80%
        Graphic Design – 80%

        Therefore, for folks interested in these types of “professions” museums seem to be saying a BA is adequate for a lot of our staff.

    • BB says:

      I don’t think entitlements is the word you’re looking for. I’m so sick of that that word, especially as a Millennial. The problem isn’t necessarily the amount of loans themselves. I’m paying my massive loan back by making a ton of sacrifices my peers in other fields don’t have to because they are paid a respectable amount of money. The real problem is in the interest rate. My loans are at 7.9% interest (started at $60,000) and were accruing the second they were dispersed to me 4.5 years ago. I paid over $2,000 just in interest this year alone! (These are government loans, not private I might add).

      I deserve to be paid what my work is worth–and it’s a lot more than $30,000/year.

      • littlecoelacanth says:

        You need to refinance…

      • BB says:

        Funny you say that–my state legislature just voted against refinancing on student loans mere hours ago.

      • Ryan says:

        BB I hear you, I’m in the same boat.I’m working two museum jobs 60 hours a weak and just and i mean just barely squeezing bye…and that is because i have to keep deferring my school loans. its crushing.

    • Emily says:

      robertlfs —
      the 45% figure for BAs is probably made up of the older “generation” of museum workers. Until about 20 years ago most museum professionals came to the field with an undergraduate degree. However, due to the recent professionalization of our field, more recent hires are often expected to have masters-level degrees.

    • leezechka says:

      People may expect lower pay, they do not expect that pay to never increase throughout their career while also being not just low, but poverty level.

  7. Cindy Olsen says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. I agree with negotiating and have done it many times. However, you have to go in with your eyes wide open. Having managed many museum budgets, I can tell you that your $29,000 salary is costing more for the employer organization.

    They are required to pay FICA, SST, and Medicare for a 2016 total of 7.65%. There is also Workers Comp insurance, and Unemployment Insurance (at a prior job totaled 1.25%) for a base total of 8.9% making your actually base costs to them as $31,581. This doesn’t include any retirement matches or health insurance costs. In 2012, I was managing a budget where the additional total costs were 32% (now making the employee now cost $38,280.)

    I’m not letting employers off the hook for underpaying employees (or overpaying directors) but you have to look at the whole picture. Have you check the museums 990 to see the total budget of the organization and their revenue streams? How stable is the organization? If you’ve done your research and they laugh in your face (Yikes, Sarah Wright) then you probably don’t want to work there anyway.

    Just my two cents having been on both the underpaid employee and administration figuring out the budget sides.

    • birnbaum says:

      Cindy, you make excellent points, and the bottom line is if you can’t afford to pay all the required taxes/insurance/benefits/etc for a position AND make sure the employee is paid fairly, then you can’t afford that employee and should not hire them until you can afford them. This is a basic rule of business, even in non-profit. Anything else is exploitative. Those taxes/insurance/etc are simply the cost of doing business.

      • Kim says:

        “Paid fairly” is what both parties agree to accept. If it’s truly not a fair wage, then hopefully the potential employee will refuse. There’s more room for negotiation than most employers will admit.

    • evelyn says:

      I agree you have to take into consideration the cost of running a museum which is largely reliant upon donations, gifts and a small revenue. i knew this field paid on the low end but i am grateful to be working in it and full time.

  8. Melinda says:

    I left the museum field for higher education because (surprisingly) it pays better and there were more job opportunities in my area. I worked 20 hours/week while I completed my MA and still graduated in 2011 with $50k in student loans (that’s a $650+/mo payment). I couldn’t afford to stay in the field I trained for because of the anemic job market and dismal pay. I love museums and want to contribute to the field and the community, but I’m not sure I can come back as anything but an occasional volunteer.

  9. lane says:

    I am somewhat recent graduate from my master’s program and work on contract at museums in the west coast. I am also a person of color in a field that has 3 others like me (in the entire nation). Before graduate school, I was told again and again that I should be prepared that my field was low paying. It was surprising because it takes a student 5-10 years to complete pre-program internships, graduate school, and post-grad fellowships before finding a job. To go through this extensive process and work for $35,000 a year is ridiculous. I was very passionate about what I wanted to do and I was hopeful that I would find full time work at a museum such as MoMA, Guggenheim, or Smithsonian who have decent (higher) salaries for people in my career. However, as I began working on internships during graduate school in the NY area, I started to notice the lack of diversity and wondered if the low salaries persisted because those in the field didn’t “need” the money. Many of my peers were married and came from wealthy families. I found a great job at a prestigious museum in NY, but had to make the most difficult decision in my life to leave the job because I could not afford rent. Since moving west, I have had to take in many private jobs and work other non-related jobs for extra money. I believe there are solutions. I am currently working on a project to increase diversity in my field- knowing that in order for these students to succeed and stay in the field, we must increase salaries. I am attending diversity councils and have been accepted into museum leadership conferences where I will voice my ideas and opinions to create a standard salary for careers in museums, based on education and experience. I believe as museums increase diversity in exhibitions, visitorship, and curatorial areas, then inclusion for EVERYONE who are passionate about entering museum careers will also increase.

    • km says:

      ” I started to notice the lack of diversity and wondered if the low salaries persisted because those in the field didn’t “need” the money. ”

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. Low wages are not only detrimental for the reasons outlined by so man others [pay disparity btwn men and women, inability to make ends meet…] It perpetuates a lack of diversity in our fields, and excludes those without the ability to afford the 5-10 years of schooling and training [un or barely paid].

  10. TP says:

    Thank you for posting this. I received an MA in Museum Studies with international experience and exposure and am currently working for a regional museum on Long Island. My salary is currently $3 above my county’s living wage (per the calculator you referenced). As a result I am not saving or investing in my own financial future. I’ve also taken on a second job in a local restaurant to be able to have a relatively comfortable standard of living. I love my field but I don’t love the financial stress it’s caused. I’m seriously considering going back into the private sector in some related fashion so I can get a little bit ahead financially and maybe return to the non-profit sector in the future.

  11. Museum Expat says:

    People like to talk about how master’s degree programs don’t offer much, but that’s not true. My degree was essentially a degree in museum administration. I knew about all kinds of things my colleagues in the exhibits department had no clue about–like NAGPRA and collections management. I had worked on budgets and written grants. I had developed an education program and worked in collections, in addition to my experience working in exhibits.

    I did my homework before grad school–I looked at quite a lot of job postings, and the ones asking for a master’s degree paid an ok wage considering the debt I knew I’d be in. What they didn’t say is that they really want the master’s degree plus 10 years of experience–or that the master’s degree is really optional.

    I had the bad luck of graduating in 2008. With all my knowledge and experience, I could not get the jobs that I felt prepared for, or that paid a living wage. Instead, I got entry level jobs. I was shocked when a superior told me to work on an exhibit with objects of questionable NAGPRA status–when I raised the issue, I was told that it’s not my concern (In the end, I refused to work on the exhibit. Had I been in a position to resign, I would have.). After 6 years and two entry level jobs, I struggled to pay medical bills (in spite of insurance) and I couldn’t step up in responsibility or pay without moving somewhere else. Meanwhile, the director of my museum took home over 550k a year.

    I left the field almost a year ago and took a corporate job requiring only a bachelor’s. My pay almost doubled and my insurance is way better. I loved working in museums, but there was no future for me there. Now I lead projects and am on my way to a senior position within a couple of years.

    The student loan forgiveness is a joke, btw. I lost 6 months to deferment because every year when I reapplied for the income based repayment, the loan servicer screwed it up. So the forgiveness date kept getting later and later, meanwhile I owed more after 7 years of payments than I had when I graduated.

    Anyone who assumes this is about entitlement is missing the bigger picture. This salary issue makes it so that the only people who can afford to work in museums are the rich ones. Whose entitlement are we talking about now?

  12. evelyn says:

    I have been in the museum field a long time. For starters I got a traditional MA in history and a post graduate diploma in material history. i have been working in museums since i was 16. When i was hired by my current employer I worked seasonal interpretation which was very hard financially especially while my husband was seasonally employed and we were raising two children. I worked education programs in the off season and volunteered in collections. When a position opened up in Heritage Resources I was hired as a seasonal preparator. then a full time contract was made available to me the full time as Registrar. Currently I am acting Manager in Heritage Resources and manage the collection of over 70 thousand artefacts. (I work at a living history village). My salary is now adequate to start to dig us out of debt after 25 years with the same employer. My point is that you have to pay your dues but it will get better. Just keep your passion for what you do.

    • Cassidy says:

      Part of the trouble is the idea that you have to “pay your dues” for so many years, though. If we all accept that it’s okay to spend 10-20 years working for $20-30k after you get your degree because that’s what previous generations have done, things will never get better. Add into that that paying your dues has now come to mean spending 2-5 years working outside the field and volunteering within it *as well as* making very little money for years once you are in it … and passion becomes not enough.

    • leezechka says:

      25 years is not an acceptable amount of time to be “paying dues” 25 years should have you preparing for retirement, not achieving a living wage.

  13. History Buff says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have always been interested in museum work, but with a Bachelor’s only, and a need to make more than a living wage, I’ve taken my love of history and turned it into my own business which is well-paying and which I work on my own terms and timetable. I recently looked at a part time curator position and the pay was less than what fast food workers make, no thanks! I will continue to work with museums as clients, and may volunteer once I retire, but I’ve long since given up the idea of a museum position.

    • Ryan Ventura says:

      You can try to work for the park service. You don’t need a master degree in museums. The problem is museums have curator jobs and jobs for people with high school diplomas. Cash register associates. Look for interperation jobs or library assistant jobs. The September 11 museum has interpretation jobs. It is the big jobs that require master degrees but phd are preferred. I get tired of the small amount of people who only say it’s a bachelor’s. They obviously do not know the difference between degrees. Bachelor degrees holders are well rounded. Phd holders are experts. Master degree holders are just scraping post graduate school. If your looking for the highest museum job, your in trouble. If you are looking for good jobs in the middle you better learn how to network.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Museums don’t really have positions for people with high school diplomas. Maybe security guards, but that’s about it. The sad thing is that several high profile museums rely on VOLUNTEERS for positions like gift shop sales associates, ticket sellers, people at the membership desks, and often interpreters as well. That’s another problem – museums rely much too much on their volunteers. One extremely well-known museum on the East Coast “employs” over 10,000 volunteers to do things that people should really be paid to do.

  14. SD says:

    I do not work in a museum, but i have worked in jobs connected to museums. I think you almost underplay your case. Needing a room at age 30 to pay the rent? That is almost everyone these days in high priced cities like Boston and New York. Make a lot less than MBAs or JDs? Many jobs requiring masters degrees do – social workers, teachers, librarians. Even new dentists don’t make great salaries in many cases. In reality, most museum jobs make significantly less than these other low paying fields, and, even worse, employers seem to expect you to be happy about it.

  15. Harmonia Balanza says:

    I think this is also symptomatic of the socio-economic climate as a whole. Many younger people
    (under 35-40) seem to have developed a willingness to work for far less than they are worth because of a recently developing culture of unpaid internships (undertaken on their own– I am not denigrating internships in an academic context). Being in my 60’s, I am taking a rather macro view. I have watched a creeping larger cultural shift of de-valuing of jobs that enhance and contribute to cultural and social well-being. Maybe it’s misplaced puritanism, but there’s an ilk in our society that resents education, culture, and the productive joys that these things bring to our world. Europe is not like that. It really needs be turned around, because it is dreary and dangerous. Young people should not feel guilty about loving what they do and be thus willing to do it for next to nothing. Cultural work is of far more value than many realize, and they need to be educated.

  16. AtaNYMuseum says:

    I went into this field eyes wide open re: pay and never expected a high salary. I grew up poor so, it seemed ok to me. Now at the mid point of my career, I really think that my generations should have focused more on adequate salaries. We have lost a lot of talent in the field. Fundamentally, we have a much larger social problem: high cost of education, abusive student loan system and a society that does not value cultural institutions. We have to fix those fundamental problems while shifting our expectations in the field. Another problem is the non-profit management structure. We expect too much from volunteer boards. Since everyone is working these days, that model of volunteer engagement no longer works–at least not like it used to. I am Director of a small museum and would LOVE to pay my staff more. I often skip taking raises so that my even more underpaid staff can do a bit better. It’s on ME to find the money to pay everyone more. I have completely given up on receiving any assistance from my board in the area of revenue generation. So, while I absolutely do believe in investing in the staff, I am extremely stressed about how to actually make that happen. I assume that the majority of museum directors are in this situation since the majority of museums are small history museums.

  17. Therese Quinn says:

    Museum studies programs should help students out by including content in their courses on labor law, employee rights, and unions. Museum employees need to start following the lead of others by organizing and then negotiating for flourishing, not just living wages, and good benefits. Students can also be encouraged to choose graduate education from public universities where costs are lower. And we can all make the smart choice of demanding that public higher education be free for anyone who wants it. That way future museum (and other cultural) workers won’t leave school saddled with debt. We have a chance at getting that now by voting for Bernie Sanders.

  18. Pat says:

    I worked as a director at a small county historical society for 11 years before taking a job in finance. I left because I had just turned 40, and I realized if I ever wanted to retire, I needed to make a change. I loved the job, but I had to leave. Looking back, it was the right decision at the right time, Funding from the County has been cut and I don’t have to work for a board that comes in for a meeting a couple hours a month, but knows everything the director should be doing. Now, almost seven years later, my 401k is worth three times my salary my final year working there. I loved my job at the museum, but I can tell you I don’t miss it every other week on payday. I have a lot more stress now, but I am being paid what I am worth.

  19. Ashley W says:

    Upon reading all those comments here, I want to state that I am still searching for museum jobs, mainly in collections or curatorial areas as I have accumulated more than 4 years of volunteer/intern experience since I graduated with the Masters degree in Museum Studies in May 2012. I am very aware of the salary issues impacting many museum professionals and I am not thrilled about this but it is not deterring me from following my passion about working in a museum so I am prepared to be possibly a little disappointed by salary amount when I am finally offered a job. Yes, I do have a student loan debt like many other commenters here and my 36 months of deferment have run out and it will begin next month so I will have to apply for Income Drive Payment plan till I land a museum job. I agree that the salary issues need fo be addressed if the museums truly want to invest in their productive employees. A question here, I wonder if the museums under the government at any level, tend to pay better? I did my homework and noticed that non govermental museum jobs tend to not state the salary range at all while the governmental ones do.

    • Ka says:

      Hi Ashley,
      Just wanted to say that, typically federal or state museum positions pay much better than a private museum. A private museum may pay a curator in a salary range of low 30 to low 40, but most state/federal curator positions pay in the 50s to the 90s. Since the salary (and benefits) are better at those jobs, they are extremely competitive and hard to get. I guess you should just keep on building up your experience…I received my first full time job from an internship!

      • Kim says:

        Probably more important than government/private is the discipline and budget size. I have 15 years in at two different state museums. Our full-time curators (one BA, most MA, some PhD) make anywhere from high 30s to high 50s. I’m sure it varies a lot though. One nice thing is that government positions tend to have great benefits. In return the pay tends to stagnant though, especially when state budgets are tight..

      • Kim says:

        I have 15 years between two different state museums. Curators in my experience make from high 30s to high 50s. 60s or higher for a chief curator. I think discipline and budget size affects salaries as much as whether the museum is state or private.

      • Ka says:

        Kim, that salary range is way higher than any private museum I’ve worked in (which is 6 in total). Going on and looking at a range of federal and state jobs, I was amazed by the salary and the benefits. Also if you are a state museum you have some budget security (usually unless you are Illinois).
        State and federal jobs are insanely competitive and rarely open up. They are decently paid, with decent benefits, so the people in those positions stay there for 15+ years.

      • Kim says:

        I was clarifying that in my experience, state curator positions pay in the 30s/50s. In your original post, you estimated that most state/federal curator positions pay 50s-90s and that seems too high. I don’t doubt that they pay higher than private museums.

  20. MM says:

    Someone hit the nail on the head here: you have to be privileged to stay working in museums. I graduated with an M.A. in Museum Education 6 years ago and have done well for myself – worked my way up from an entry-level position to a director-level position reporting to the E.D. But the only reason I’ve been able to do this is because a) I have a trust fund that provides me with extra money every year, and b) I have a spouse who makes much more than I do. Without these, I would have had to drop out of this field by now. As it is, to get to this level I have had to make multi-state moves twice so far in my career, each costing thousands of dollars. Without making these moves, I would have been trapped in the same entry-level job I started out in, making only $3-$4 above a living wage. As it is, at the level I’ve moved to, I still make about 1/3 of what my spouse makes.

    • Kim says:

      While I don’t agree that you have to be privileged (I’m definitely not), the ability and willingness to relocate certainly helps. That also might mean jumping ship from an institution you love. I made a hard decision to move on to a different museum last year. It’s much easier to negotiate a significant raise with an outside employer.

  21. […] 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 […]

  22. AM says:

    I’ve been reading all your comments with great interest, since I think we have the same problem everywhere. I am a professional from Mexico, my masters degree was free because I studied at the National University. Even without a loan it is hard to make a living in the museum field, where high salaries (I am deputy director of one of the most important museums) are around $16,000-18,000 k without a single benefit (parking space is my only privilege, don’t even think about insurance). I have many friends in Latin America facing the same problems, some even worst as a result of governments that don’t care about culture.
    I think that one of our main mistakes is that we have not been able to show how important culture is for everyone. Maybe the fact that our profession is not taken ‘seriously ‘ relyes on that.
    BTW, I’ve been to some AAM reunions and have always been impressed of the amount of men working in museums in the US. I think in Mx we are around 80% women in the field, most of us being able to afford an underpayed job because of the extra support from our spouses.

  23. JES says:

    There is one other important factor to consider – the job market in museums,especially at the entry level, is flooded. When I post an entry level job for our historic site I tend to get between 60-90 qualified applicants for the position. That means that I can choose from a wide selection of folks, most with similar degrees and experience. We have a set salary for the position so there is no opportunity for applicants to negotiate but even if they did, I could probably just move down the list until I found someone who would take the job at the salary offered. When any field is flooded, like ours is, it will keep salaries low, especially at the entry level. So my advice to anyone entering this field is to find a job that will let you develop skills, take ownership of projects, push initiatives. These are the skills and accomplishments that will make you stand out when you try to take the jump to the next level within your career. If you are in a job where you are just giving tours, or just entering info into a database, you are not going to be able to advance to that next salary so be mindful of how your current job can help you step up.

    • I have done tours and I have done database, still am. what helped me was that I willing to do whatever to stay visible. One thing i have noted that noone has commented on is that the job market is flooded because there are too many museum studies programs starting up. when I graduated they were very few and very competitive to get into. what helped me to get into the market was not specialization, I took a standard MA in history and a post graduate diploma in material history, what helped me was broad experience doing everything.

  24. Ann says:

    Any solutions? Should we take the pot of money allocated to staff and just pay everyone equally? It isn’t like the Museum world allows us to just increase fees for our “product” to cover higher wages, so you would have to redistribute. You solve one issue (ED makes less, entry level makes more) but then people still ruminate over “still not enough money, I work harder than so-and-so”, no reason to worker harder, etc. I would love real solutions to be offered to the very real problem.

  25. Annie Gamez says:

    Reading all these comments certainly makes me very nervous since I am applying for a Masters degree in Museum Studies. I know the market is not that great and I worry about paying my loans off. It is very sad indeed that the museum field has to beg for money in order to even run. I have about 7 years experience in the field, and the top I have made was $14 an hour. Definitely makes it hard and discouraging when you work so hard to have a great education and so little money that acknowledges your skill.s

    • Ka says:

      I finished my museum studies degree a few years ago and have since been employed in the curatorial field. If you have a ton of student loans (I do), I would not recommend pursuing this field. I put about half my monthly paycheck toward my student loans. I’m lucky to live in a low cost state, otherwise I couldn’t afford to work in museums.

    • Mary McCarthy says:

      In good conscience I would not recommend getting a museum studies MA. I would look at working with your undergrad degree and experience.

  26. […] Museums and the Salary Conundrum […]

  27. Erich says:

    More than 30 years experience in the field of exhibit design. Six of those years were heading up exhibit departments. My first 3 as salaried staff was a wonderful experience. I had a long commute and they offered me a four day week. There were many periods when the weeks went to 5-6 days and my hours went well beyond the 40 mark. BUT, they offered me comp time, the benefits were good and they made an effort to make it work. FYI, the salary was lower than my previous job and that was in NYC. I still felt I was doing ok.

    My second 3 years heading up an exhibit department was almost the complete opposite. The salary was less, even for a lower cost of living location in Texas, and benefits were ok at best. I found myself being asked to work way beyond my weekly 40 with only a token amount of comp time offered. My last year there I had worked my entire year by the beginning of June and they still wanted more from me. When I began working at that museum they had supposedly just begun looking at national standards for salaries and pay but we never heard what they discovered. I think it may have shocked them and they decided to “just keep going with it.” That museum has changed dramatically since I left and from what I can gather things are better now.

    I knew my museum jobs would pay less than my contract design firm jobs, but I also was very interested in the different dynamics you find in museums. That was worth the difference.

    Museum jobs should pay a living wage and there should be room for growth in salaries so that folks actually stick around. But to make that work the people running the show need to be fair and not just decide to take advantage of the low status quo.

  28. rjsmith2 says:

    Agree! I have also been using the living wage calculator for a few years now, and it’s a good resource. I recently started volunteering in a large museum registration department, and I hear the assistant registrars talk about their struggle to pay rent, or even travel to visit family. So, even my dream job isn’t such a dream job.

  29. […] post about low salaries in the museum world led to another post  and has inspired a whole train of thought about […]

  30. Melinda says:

    Last week I received an email announcing the closure of a museum where I used to work. Technically, I worked at the arts college that had an operating agreement with the museum, but a portion of my time was dedicated to directly supporting the museum. The arts college decided to close the 79 year old museum after years of financial instability. The small but talented staff will lose their jobs and the collection will go to the college (with planned public access). These are indeed difficult times, and if no one is willing to “put their money where their mouth is,” closures are inevitable.

  31. eingmund says:

    I see lots of great comments here. I’ve been in the field for almost ten years, and I can safely say that at the beginning, I had the fortune of good timing. I entered the field in 2006 fresh out of my undergrad program. I took a job as a seasonal interpreter, and a position opened up for coordinating scheduling, handling group sales, and troubleshooting visitor operations issues. Although I didn’t see this job as a perfect match for my interests, I thought it was an opportunity to pursue. Over the course of four years, the job grew around me as I became better at it. I took on more responsibilities in other areas, and learned a lot more from it. It allowed me to build a professional network that helped me get into a good graduate program and also helped me land the job that I hold today. So, to offer a little bit of optimism, I would say that in the right institution (and this is key), a job can grow around you.

    That being said, I know plenty of people in similar positions to the folks who are struggling and have chimed in on this conversation. Unfortunately there are no easy answers.

    Prudent human resources management has to start at the board level. There needs to be a recognition of the importance of a sustainable operating model. A healthy organization should generate its operating expenses in a balanced way – an even distribution of endowment draw, gate/program revenue, facility rentals, membership / development efforts, etc. All of those areas need to contribute a similar portion of the budgetary pie. Putting too many eggs into one basket leads to instability and hurts the staff. Boards need to understand this, and they need to be honest with themselves about how much really needs to go into their operating budget. Yes, invest in your people. But do it in a way that is sustainable in the long term. I see too many good people who have temporary jobs attached to grants, and when the grant money is gone, they’re back to square one.

    One other point – we’re talking a lot about entry level managerial jobs, but I think it’s also important to be mindful of the boots on the ground – people working in interpretation or visitor services. I want these positions to be good entry-level opportunities for young people. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the gap between wages and living costs tends to push them away.

    One potential solution is for museums to fight the silo dynamic. A colleague and I are in conversations with our director of visitor services to find ways to coordinate his work schedule with ours, so that our staff who want to work more hours can find more opportunities. Also, cross-training is beneficial.

    Obviously, hours have a limited positive impact if the hourly wage is too low. But doing more internally to collaborate better and cross pollinate our human resources, I think, at least part of the solution.

  32. Jessica says:

    The portion about not negotiating after being offered a position jumped out at me. I’m not surprised about this for a few reasons. 1. Mostly women apply for jobs in our field and we are taught to be agreeable from the minute we’re born. Negotiating violates that rule and makes most women uncomfortable. 2. Since we’re applying for jobs in government or non-profit we assume there is no room for negotiation because why would they offer less than they could afford? If they want to hire me why don’t they offer me what they can pay? Also, no one asks for relocation fees anymore. I would be shocked if I was even offered any money to move across the country for a job. I would be floored. 3. There are so few openings that when someone says they want to hire you, you jump at the chance. When I got out of grad school I searched for eight months for a position! The last thing you want to happen is them changing their mind because you cost too much. When you are desperate for employment and experience you will take what you can get. I am currently looking for a position because mine is being eliminated and I doubt I’ll negotiate because I am once again desperate for a job. It is the harsh and sad reality of our field.

    • Kim says:

      The thing is, you’ll almost never lose out on a job because you negotiate. If you’re at that stage, they already want to hire you. It doesn’t mean you’ll get what you ask for, but it almost never hurts to ask. At worst, you’ll get a counteroffer or they’ll tell you that there’s no room to negotiate. In my experience, employers actually expect a good candidate to negotiate and will respect you for it.

  33. […] ridiculously low. We’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog which you can find here: Museums and the Salary Conundrum or The Salary Agenda. But having acknowledged the demands of family, friends, and the financial […]

  34. This is definitively one of the cons of working in the arts. Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

    We work with a lot of folks looking to build or start their art careers. Typically, we see that many do not do enough research about the field (types of positions available, pay scales) and could benefit from keeping a wide perspective (could you apply your skills at other art organizations or for-profit organizations, not just museums? Are you able/willing to move for a similar jobs in another geographic area?).

    Here are some additional thoughts on the subject from our blog:

  35. […] clicking from link to link beginning with a #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat, I ended up at this post at the Leadership Matters blog that discusses the issue of museum salaries. Among quite a few comments, one commenter reported […]

  36. […] Instagram, and Facebook number 1,200. Building on 2016’s unbelievably popular post, Museums and the Salary Conundrum, 2017’s most read post was Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem? It seems […]

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