Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem?


There is no question that museum salaries are the field’s third rail. Whenever they are mentioned here, we see a spike in readership and the number of comments. Museum directors tell us that if salaries go up, there’s no money for heating/cooling or the education department or exhibits or the institution’s 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 hand there’s salary equity within an institution. Her concern was directors whose salaries are out of proportion to the rest of the staff. Obviously if a director’s or CFO’s salaries are hugely inflated in comparison to other staff, that is a problem that needs the board’s attention, and the first issue might be getting them to understand this type of inequity is a problem. And speaking of salary inequities, don’t forget the gender salary gap, but more about that later.

The writer’s second point relates to the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument. Here’s what she wrote,” 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 programmatic activities (for which funds can more readily be obtained). I’m not sure what the solution to THAT is.”

You know this. You live with it. It is part and parcel of museum leadership in 2017. And we get it. We really do. But here’s a thought, not a judgement: Are there decisions that museum service organizations, boards and museum leaders could make over the long term leading to better salaries?

Let’s pause to note that Leadership Matters believes many small and medium sized museums don’t allow themselves to think long term. And by long term, we mean five to 10 years in the future. The reasons for that are likely complex, from poor trustee training, to dismissive attitudes toward museums and heritage organizations in general, to the risk-averse nature of many non-profit boards or an ingrained belief that a board’s role is to maintain status quo rather than to work for change. But the museum field’s salary problem demands long-term planning.

So what is the solution? There isn’t just one. The low salary problem grew over time, nurtured by the hierarchical nature of the field, and the museum world’s gentle tip towards a pink-collar workplace. The fact that a master’s degree is almost de riguer for employment brings a huge group of debt-ridden employees to museums every year. These factors make museums easiest for employees with second incomes–family money or high earning partners–creating a vicious circle where the wealthy stay on, while others leave. That may be a huge generalization, and many of you can point to exceptions, nonetheless, this is a complex problem involving race, class and gender. It took decades to create and it will take decades to undo. So here are some suggestions for change:

While who gets paid what is, at the highest level, a board thing, we believe it’s time for AAM and AASLH to step up to the plate. While AAM, AAMD, and the regional museum organizations have religiously collected salary data for decades, it’s largely a passive commitment. If you or your organization buy the survey, you may use it to your heart’s content, but isn’t it time for our national museum associations to follow the American Library Association and stipulate a minimum salary for museum professionals? The cynics among you may ask what good would that do? In the short term, precious little. Over the long term, however, a minimum salary for directors might give organizations pause before they hire a maid-of-all-work at $28,000, while allowing job applicants the courage to say no thank you, your position doesn’t meet the national association’s base salary.

Museums and heritage organizations have to be encouraged to endow positions. That isn’t something just for colleges or huge, wealthy organizations. What better way to acknowledge the importance of staff in keeping organizations alive and changing? Yes, it’s costly, but endowing positions frees up cash for other anxiety-provoking expenses.

Museums need to become the non-profit world’s leaders in addressing the gender pay gap. The salary gap is not a myth, but a real thing–look at AAMD’s report on salary equity and AAM’s newest salary survey–and is something every organization needs to address. What would happen if the museum field were known as the job sector that made women’s salaries equitable first? That means making sure all women’s salaries are equal since statistics show women of color and queer women don’t make as much as white women, and only then adjusting women’s salaries to meet men’s. How would that affect hiring and more importantly, retention?

Last, AAM, AASLH, AAMD, the regional service agencies, and the United States’ many museum boards have to support and encourage salary growth. From the accreditation process to the StEPs program, staff salaries and benefits have to matter in a visible, tangible way. Organizations should be open and transparent about staff turnover, about their ability to hire above their city’s Living Wage. Why? Because a well-paid, content, smart staff drive organizations forward. And that’s a cultural shift.

This is a problem for all of us. Let’s work for change.

Joan Baldwin


7 Comments on “Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem?”

  1. Starlyn D'Angelo says:

    Another part of this issue is the persistent culture of scarcity that exists in many organizations. That culture and mindset needs to change.

  2. SolidarityForever says:

    Thank you! AAM and AASLH and every association needs to keep hearing that action on this is a priority. Staff need to educate their boards on this topic, particularly in small museums. And I think a point you briefly made needs to be highlighted more: we as professionals should not take positions with ridiculously low salaries!!! It’s hard to turn a position down but it is keeping this a field-wide problem if boards know they can get someone to fill the position for “$28,000” (from your Maid for all work example)

  3. DYoumans says:

    I appreciate the work Leadership Matters has put in to highlighting the issue of low pay in the museum field and the class and racial homogeneity it creates. However, I’d like to highlight a different angle. There’s lots of articles, blogs, thinkpieces, etc. similar to this one. They describe the low pay issue in museums and connect it to larger issues of inequality, access to this career, pink collar jobs, etc. Generally, they end by calling on the powers-that-be to consider raising salaries. In short, the way to change is always through the people at the top. The blog post is predicated on the idea that employers and organizations like AAM will, someday, sometime, recognize the righteousness of these arguments and critiques and respond accordingly.

    I think workers in the museum field need to consider a new model of worker-based change. I work in a unionized museum. We negotiate salaries, health insurance, time off, use of sick time, and even parking. I feel there’s a deep intersection between my work as a museum professional, my beliefs about inequality in our field and what causes it, and my work as a labor activist. Our contract keeps our jobs relatively well paid and our health care costs low. It ensures that any and all genders are get equal pay for equal work. Our contract ensures that tasks cannot be slowly shuffled onto volunteers or piled onto fewer and fewer staff as a way to eliminate jobs or take advantage of the remaining workers. My feeling is that if the management class in our field won’t make our field accessible and viable to anyone who wants to have a career here, then the workers will take the lead and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together.

    There’s definitely difficulties (and that’s putting it lightly). Consensus-building is hard work. A lot of museum workers are hesitant about pressuring management, probably due the a mission-driven environment. I invite people to explore those impulses and think critically about the dynamic in your workplace and why “what’s best for the institution” is typically borne on the backs of workers. Also, people are often hesitant to pressure managers with whom they share similar political values and beliefs and enjoy collegial relationships. I can understand. I don’t believe all managers are bad people. I will say, though, that after many years of negotiating and dealing with this that managers are like most people in that they will not do what they should until they don’t have a choice anymore.

    In short, consider unionization. It’s not easy, but I believe the time has come for workers to take the lead on improving our field, because it doesn’t appear management’s going to do anything about it anytime soon.

  4. Michael Holland says:

    I’m a museum professional who has worked both as a staff member and as an independent contractor, working for museums ranging from the smallest to the largest. No matter where I’m working, a persistent theme I see when museums spend money is “stuff over staff”.

    Museums will often spend handsomely to pay contract designers, consultants, fabricators, etc. and it’s not uncommon for some of those contractors to be doing the same work as in-house staff members, often for much higher pay. Perhaps in some instances there may be financial advantages to this for the museum. Spending more for a single year on a contractor may well be less expensive in the long run than spending less per year every year for an employee indefinitely, especially with insurance benefits. Some museums have reduced staff to such an extent that they now have to depend on contractors, having nobody in-house to do the job.

    Typically, these contract expenditures are made in order to obtain “stuff”, often the expansion/renovation of part of the museum or an ambitious new exhibit. I’ve often wondered if part of what drives this is where museums get their money. I don’t work in development, but from my limited perspective it seems that most museums are heavily dependent on private donors (sometimes individual, sometimes corporate) for financial support. It’s quite common to see naming rights offered to prospective donors as an incentive. But it’s a lot easier to put someone’s name on an exhibit hall than it is on an assistant registrar, even though both of those things may be integral to the museum. Often, the core duties and functions of museum staff members are not very visible to the public and thus may be harder to pitch to prospective donors.

    While these are realities of the funding climate, I sometimes wonder if we in the museum community aren’t sufficiently communicating about what’s “behind the scenes” making our museums what they are – the staff. It’s not uncommon for prospective donors to get a personal tour of the museum, often led by the museum director themselves. Staff may be encouraged to tell these visiting dignitaries about what they’re working on. They often ask many good questions, but I’ve never heard any of them ask a staff member “Do you get paid enough to do this?” or “Will your salary allow you to own a home?” While these tours might not be the best place for such a discussion to begin, it seems like it should be part of the discussion. But is it? Is this issue seen by leadership as a top priority to put before supporters? Is there a way to make funding truly adequate staff salaries as important to supporters as funding a new building addition or exhibit?

    Thanks for reading my $0.02 worth,


  5. KLandon says:

    A start would be professional associations like AAM and AASLH *requiring* salary ranges on job postings – for accredited museums, listings on their sites, etc. Transparency would be a big step.

    • Michael Holland says:

      Good idea, KL. “Depending on experience” is not helpful, and applying for a job only to learn that the salary is too low for the applicant to be able to afford to accept said job is a waste of time – for both the applicant and the hiring museum. Having a hard baseline salary is a crucial part of the calculus, especially if taking the job requires relocating to another city which may have different housing/living costs.

      I would add to this a requirement of disclosure of any limitations that may dictate where an applicant may fall within the listed salary range. For example, if the hiring museum is part of government or a state university, a given title may allow a fairly wide salary range, but new hires not already employed by that entity often must start at the bottom of that range.

  6. […] unbelievably popular post, Museums and the Salary Conundrum, 2017’s most read post was Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem? It seems there’s a theme […]

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