Owning a Piece of the Museum Salary Pie

own it

Greetings from the frozen Northeast where we woke up to minus-zero temperatures and brilliant sunshine. With more than 7,000 views in the last two weeks and 30 comments it seems an appropriate moment to respond to some of your thoughts.

More than a few of you wrote saying that despite what might be right or desirable, when it comes to salaries, a leader can’t get blood from a stone. True enough. And that works the opposite way too, which one reader pointed out: If you’re an applicant and the salary is set, it’s set. No amount of clever negotiating will garner you a better offer, but you can always ask. If you’re told that the salary is non-negotiable, ponder what else that tells you.

After reading all the comments, first, something for those doing the hiring: Unlike, the reader who suggested museums can’t invest in staff, we firmly believe they can. These are decisions that begin with the board, which starts the process when it invests in a leader. While leadership, vision, equity and creativity incubate around the board table, the board shares those characteristics with its director. In a perfect world they live in a symbiotic state passing energy, ideas and vision back and forth.

Boards make decisions all the time. They can decide to hire an inexperienced leader who will take a lesser salary and reap the reward when that person leaves frustrated and underpaid; they can hire that same leader and literally invest in her leadership training or, if they are able, they can commit to a bigger offer to attract a more experienced candidate. Yes, she may leave too, but if she was worth the investment, hopefully the organization will have grown along with her. And that is the goal, to move the institution forward not keep it treading water in a sea of mediocrity.

And boards can invest in salaries. Colleges, universities and schools do it. When was the last time you heard of a smaller museum raising money for an endowed position? How many museums list the amount they spend each year on professional development and staff travel on the “About Us” tab on their websites? Yes, money has to be put aside for these things, but museum leaders also have to believe they are important, and in the end, create a stronger, more able staff, hopefully, reducing turnover, which costs money, time, and brain power.

Here, we’d like to underscore that there is no one fix for the many salary-related problems.  But, we agree with those of you who suggested that there are too many museum studies graduate programs, and no way for eager undergraduates to sift through the myriad choices to figure out which one is better.

We all own a piece of this pie. And if the top of the page was directed toward museum leadership, this half is for individuals. Sadly, there is no Consumer Reports to help you decipher a good museum studies program from a lame one, but you can ask a lot of questions. And if you’re already in the field, be careful.  Listen to what one of our readers said, “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.”

Your job shouldn’t make you feel like an indentured servant. Be strategic. If the salary stinks, but your Linkedin project list page continues to grow, you get to go to regional or national meetings every year or so, you’re encouraged to network, etc., maybe it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. And, we assume you are thinking about what you need in your next position. Hint: the answer is not necessarily the opposite of what you’ve got now.

So…to return to where we began: Wherever you are in the museum food chain–a white, male leader with a livable salary, a female leader earning less, an employee having trouble paying your graduate school loans–we urge you to own your part. If you’re a leader, be creative around the issue of salaries. Do you have a trustee who wouldn’t ever build a wing on your building but could endow a position? Are many of your staff parents? Would a trustee donate to a matching fund for daycare? Would your board create a professional development fund or take a lesser rent for a property she owns to be used by staff in return for a tax deduction? If your board says, “But that’s not what we do,” are you ready to respond, “Oh, but it is.” We hire good, talented staff because we believe they will get the job done. Helping create better salary/benefit packages tells staff they are valued. Valued staff respond with good work.

And if you’re not a valued staff person, take every opportunity to build your resume, strategize about what kind of museum job would be perfect for you, and make a plan to find it.

Keep writing to us.

Joan Baldwin


5 Comments on “Owning a Piece of the Museum Salary Pie”

  1. gthomas2012 says:

    Regarding the “salary conundrum” – I’ve stayed out of the discussion to see what might transpire and wanted to add the following: Since 1998 at an AAM Conference in New Orleans I have been speaking everywhere about how low compensation militates against many of the other goals of the field, especially diversity – most groups want their children to be doctors, lawyers and head of Time Warner – a museum career compensation-wise is not valid. The answer is simple then and now: A Board builds a budget with decent salaries included and then they go and raise the money. It’s that simple! As most boards are comprised of business leaders or corporate types, there seems to be a real disconnect – they would never offer their own employees the salaries of museum employees. The problem also is with us — it’s in our language all the time — “I’m passionate about museums and can take a cut in salary.” “I realize I won’t be making that much money to work in a museum.” We all should be wearing T-shirts that say “I love what I do, don’t pay me.” I encourage my students at NYU to advocate for decent salaries and not take positions that are sorely underpaid. Perhaps Millennials and the up and coming Generation Z will take up the cause and change the way so many of us have accepted the “salary conundrum” through the decades. Cheers, Geri Thomas, President of Thomas & Associates/artstaffing.com

  2. Bill Hoskey says:

    What if you board is composed of folks with little money or connections or business sophistication – then what? Most museums aren’t MOMA – that is apparent, right?

  3. Kathie Gow says:

    I’d like to know how local museums ARE funding one or more positions at their museums. Just as Bill Hosley asked, we don’t have any high-rollers on our non-profit historical society board, and the museum’s collection is owned by our small, typically cash-strapped town. So far, the only pay we’ve gotten for museum staff has been part-time, grant funded, but will run out soon. What are some models that small museums have used to generate — or endow — a few positions?

    • Kathie —

      Here’s what I think your organization needs to do:

      1. First, make an organizational commitment to moving from a part-time staff to a full-time staff with decent pay and benefits, and to the extent you can, that you’re going to rely on operating income to pay core staff. For me, making a commitment is accomplished through one or more board conversations and a vote.

      2. Figure out how much that’s going to cost. Don’t guess; don’t shrug the prospect off without running the numbers. The only way you can tackle a problem is by knowing exactly what the problem is.

      3. If board members balk at any of this, question them about whether they are the right people to have on the board. (It may be time to realign the board by bringing on people with access to donors and who are donors themselves.) You have reached a point where the organization can no longer sustain itself on the altruism of volunteers alone.

      4. Once you have that dollar number, you can then create a written plan to reach what you need to raise in new dollars. This won’t happen overnight. You’ll probably need to grow it in phases. That’s OK.

      5. Look at your organization’s current income streams. Typically, you have contributed income (from individuals, corporations; possibly other sources); earned income (from your events and sales); and maybe some government income (through grants, usually, although you might have contracts for services). Consider how to grow those streams. Make a plan for doing so.

      6. Look to the board and your most generous donors and ask for their support. Consider creating an endowment just for staff positions (or one staff position). Raise money for that endowment. Know how large an endowment you’ll need to throw off income enough to support or defray salary/benefits.

      7. Consider sharing staff with another museum; if it’s admin staff, consider sharing with another nonprofit. Pooling resources could give you a bigger bang for the buck.

      8. Approach this knowing that you probably can’t do it all at once — phase it, be logical, keep everyone informed and involved; compellingly communicate the need to members and funders.

      My two cents,


  4. marie says:

    What you said about museums investing in staff really resonated with me. I have Several colleagues who work entry level jobs in an NYC museum … sure the pay is horrible, but the bigger issue is there isn’t any room for growth. One of my colleagues hasn’t gotten a raise in 4 years, and was told she should *never* expect one. They aren’t allowed to develop projects, travel for conferences, take any sort of leadership role or take time off work to get a degree. They end up frustrated, feeling like they have no where to go because, after 5 years, they haven’t developed any new skills.

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to run a dept. this way….

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