Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem?Posted: July 24, 2017
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.