Owning a Piece of the Museum Salary PiePosted: February 15, 2016
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.