Low Salaries? The Museum Field? Really?


Maybe it’s just Leadership Matters, but it seems as though the museum field might be pulling its head out of the sand about its salary problem–like it’s been sleeping but now it’s woke? The last few weeks we’ve seen blogs, online discussions, and press releases, all discussing the low salaries in the field.

The prompt may have been the press surrounding American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD’s) 2017 salary survey released in June. Although it’s collected data for a century, this was the first time it made the results public. And yes, it’s a small survey–219 North American art museums–and, as the name implies, we’re talking art, not history. But the good news is it’s free. Of course there’s always AAM’s salary survey, which is a massive collaboration between 10 regional museum associations, and the most comprehensive of any museum salary survey. Of AAM’s 1,000 respondents many come from history museums, however, it also includes staff from zoos, botanical gardens, and science museums. There’s only one problem, and it’s not with the survey itself, but if Facebook posts from emerging professionals are any indication, its cost sometimes makes access prohibitive.

Just for fun we Googled “salaries museum jobs.” We got 548,000 hits and a surprising amount of information from outside the field, information that ought to put the fear of god in many graduate student hearts. Payscale.com which claims its data was updated in June 2017 offers not only salary information, but hourly pay, and pay by institution. Admittedly it’s a tiny group, and many of them are large urban or suburban organizations, but information is information. Clearly it’s better to work for the Smithsonian at $26/hour then just about anybody else on Payscale’s list. Not to mention, that despite the current administration’s best efforts, the Smithsonian is here to stay. And yes, there are more than a few organizations on Payscale’s list where choosing a career at Panera Bread or Target might offer a better starting salary, more predictable raises, and where there’s no need for a graduate degree.

So what should you do if you’re new in the field and clobbered by the fact that maybe your grandma was right and you should have learned a trade like plumbing or gone to medical school? Well, pulling the covers over your head is an option, but here are some other thoughts.

  • We do believe change starts from the bottom up so even though it’s a small thing, start talking about the salary issue. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with your boss. Practice ways to say what needs to be said that aren’t confrontational, but still get the point across. Your museum’s leadership won’t listen if they think they’re liable to see you with a picket sign on the front steps.
  • We are fierce advocates for higher wages, but it’s important to love what you do. It sounds dopey, but honestly, no matter what you do–in or out of the museum field–if you don’t love it, you’re going to feel like your soul’s being sucked out of your body a bit at a time. Change doesn’t happen overnight except in fairy tales, so if a big salary means more to you than a life in museums, you’ll never be happy. Try investment banking. Then you can be a museum board member. Just be honest with yourself.
  • If you’re in museum leadership, you need to be a fierce advocate for your staff. Your organization–and the field as a whole–is only as good as its staff. You want the best you can afford, and you want them to be happy, not covertly job hunting at their desks. Lobby your board for equitable salary and benefits. Take a page from academe and endow some of your key positions. If you lead a small organization, are there creative ways you can band together with local arts organizations and hire one person to do the same task at several places? Collaboration brings its own rewards, but that’s another post.
  • If you teach in a graduate program, we hope you make AAM’s salary survey available to your students.
  • Last, if you’re new to the field, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Yes, big city salaries are often higher, but are they higher for entry level employees? And will your expenses be higher too? Do you want to work two jobs and share an apartment? The bottom line: know where you will get the best deal for you. And negotiate your offer. Again, know what you need: Is it more personal time off? Health benefits? Opportunities to travel? Or just cold hard cash? Whatever you choose, it’s not a life sentence. Get as much experience as you can and move on.

This is an issue that shouldn’t go away. Let’s all do what we can to make museum salaries equitable and livable.

Joan Baldwin

12 Comments on “Low Salaries? The Museum Field? Really?”

  1. Ka says:

    “Change doesn’t happen overnight except in fairy tales, so if a big salary means more to you than a life in museums, you’ll never be happy. Try investment banking. Then you can be a museum board member. Just be honest with yourself.”
    Um what!? This makes no sense. Sometimes I’d love a change in order to make more money…but my degree is in museum studies. Pretty sure a bank isn’t going to think I am very qualified. Not to mention, the majority of museum workers (due to low salaries) cannot afford to go back to school for a career change. Maybe you should recommend something that is within the realm of possibility.

    • Perhaps that comment was too glib. It was directed more to students contemplating a career in the museum world, rather than folks already in the pipeline. For some, the equation of salary vs. love of career never works out and they end up leaving the field. Some are able to transfer skills elsewhere. Again, I think the comment was for individuals contemplating an investment in graduate school, that they think deeply about what they want and need before making the leap.

      • Dani Stuckle says:

        I tell students something similar all the time. If you are not prepared for years of low wages, get a business degree and serve on a board.

      • stubby says:

        The problem is you think it is just a little temporary low pay.

        It is poverty level wages that never really increase. So you start at 25K, 20 years later you are supposed to be grateful if your salary raises to 32K.

        Highly educated and highly skilled people HAVE to leave the industry in order to pay rent and eat. God forbid they ever even consider owning a home or saving for retirement.

  2. Janice Klein says:

    I think we are looking at two different issues (if not more). The first is salary equity within a single institution. Within the overall salary budget are funds allocated “fairly” (e.g., the director doesn’t make 100 times the amount the collections manager makes) and are merit raises provided at approximately the same rate for similar levels of performance? This is something that individuals, no matter what their position, can and should have an effect on.

    The other issue has to do with the limited overall funding available for running a museum (which could probably be expanded to most of the non-profit sector). Many (most?) museums are challenged to find additional sources for staff salaries since we are “overhead”*, along with utilities, insurance, snow removal, etc., rather than programatic activities (for which funds can more readily be obtained). I’m not sure what the solution to THAT is.

    *[I’m beginning to think that we should be wearing t-shirts or buttons that say, “I’m overhead”, to alert our donors (and even our families) what “overhead” really means (for more on this read any of the great blogs at Nonprofits AF)]

    • Janice–
      Yes, a lot of museums are “overhead,” but do you think that stems from decades of trustees investing in buildings and not people not to mention a sort of I suffered-so-you-should-suffer too from older to younger staff?

  3. Jason Dake says:

    I agree it needs to be a topic of conversation across sectors and professions. I’ve been tempted a few times to propose a session at a conference where everyone goes into a room, turns off the lights, and when their job title is called off over the loudspeaker, they each take turns yelling out their salary. There’s something about our paychecks that taps into an unconscious (and conscious) anxiety, and a need for privacy that I think hinders our ability to address the issue. The idea that we rely on reports of small pools of museums who volunteer their information seems antithetical to what museums generally celebrate – truth and transparency and curiosity. But it’s not specific to museums. People seem to think it’s illegal/unethical/unprofessional to talk about their own salary. Given the right situation and approach, it needs to be encouraged if we ever want to make sure everyone gets their fair shake.

  4. Arianna says:

    The main issue that I had in my first full-time museum job was that they expected me to do the job of about three to four people for very little pay. I’m talking about a mid-size museum. Originally I had been paid in the high 20’s because I waived my health insurance (I was under 26). Time went by, a hell of a lot of work and effort was displayed, and when it came time to finally negotiate the “real deal,” they said that my salary was actually going to go DOWN to reflect the addition of insurance. So that meant $25,500/year, paid holidays, health insurance, and a work phone. I think for a lot of us it’s not a question of “love,” it’s more that we could do virtually ANY JOB and negotiate a better deal than that. I personally couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I was going to work extremely hard to make only $12.25/hr with a BA. I felt very taken advantage of as a young female and knew that the job had virtually no growth potential. I’m not saying that every museum is like that, but I definitely hear a number of stories similar to mine. I ultimately made the decision to go to grad school and I’m working on my PhD now. Obviously that has it’s own particular challenges, however, I make more as a part-time graduate assistant than I did at my full-time museum gig. That kind of says it all. If I, by chance, ever end up in a leadership position at a museum or elsewhere, I know what NOT to do now.

  5. Janice Klein says:

    I’d love to see data on (1) salary distribution within a single institution – in any non-profit sector – just to get some kind of baseline information on how much more percentage-wise a CEO makes – or “should” make – over a VP, department head, etc.; and (2) budget allocations showing percentages spent on salaries, programs, building and grounds, etc. – and even better if it could be compared to other non-profits. Otherwise we can just keep speculating – and relying on anecdotal evidence – that museum salary structures are not equitable or that museums don’t allocate enough for salaries compared to other budgetary items.

    Yes, museum salaries are crappy, but is that because “someone” is being unfair in how the money is being allocated or that there isn’t enough money going to museums period? These are really two different problems, with different solutions.

    I would lean towards the latter explanation – and suggest that it is a problem for all non-profits – and that the solution lies in understanding – and countering – the historical basis of people (wives of the wealthy?) doing “good works” for little or no financial reward. Of course, that’s just speculation.

  6. […] digital presence. Or how about an organization’s crumbling infrastructure? After our July 10 post a reader wrote, that she felt the low salary issues were really a two-fold problem. On the one […]

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