Twin Thoughts: A Postscript on Salaries and Disruption in the Berkshires


As we predicted last week’s post generated some lively thoughts. Since not all our comments are posted on the blog itself, in the spirit of change coming from the bottom up, we thought we should share a comment with you. With the writer’s permission, here it is:

I am in the process of writing a grant, or as we say, I am playing the hunger games. The request is for a FT staff position and the salary I am requesting is $33,000 plus health and life insurance, total compensation package approximately 40,000. I am requiring one year of experience (internships count), but I am not requiring an MA because I believe doing so has made our field less diverse and less equitable over the past 25 years. When I showed the job description and salary package to a colleague, her reaction was “Wow! That’s a lot of money.” When I explained that it was just over the soon to be minimum wage of $15 hr, she just said, “Oh.” We all need to stop thinking that an MA is required to work in a museum (or a library). We need to invest in the next generation, believe and act on the belief that less than minimum wage is unacceptable, for anyone.”

What would happen to the museum field if more people did this? No, one individual’s act won’t change the salary crisis, nor will it deal with the gender pay gap, but if even a quarter of museums opened their doors to newly minted college graduates, let them test the water, mentored them, advised them, would the field be worse off? Might it be more diverse as the writer suggests? Might emerging professionals be better off understanding the field a little bit before investing in graduate school?


Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum’s announcement last week. If you’ve been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone–the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings–monetizing the collection isn’t usually a board’s first or even second choice when it’s desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”  The Museum’s director responded in The New York Times by stating, “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”

What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell’s exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking?

But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It’s a museum. When current board members agreed to serve–and serve is an operative word– did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn’t matter?

This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.” Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words “executive branch” with the “America Alliance of Museums”? In other words, the Museum hasn’t done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field’s ethical boundaries.

While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby’s, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum’s pending sale seems like a train that’s not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there’s always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like “fiduciary” and “duty of care”? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM’s Pledge of Excellence or AAMD’s Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don’t operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field’s ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things–political office, for example–you can’t only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let’s do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us.

Joan Baldwin


4 Comments on “Twin Thoughts: A Postscript on Salaries and Disruption in the Berkshires”

  1. Cassidy says:

    The MA discussion is so complex. It’s true that it’s a barrier to entry, but it’s also true that getting an MA often greatly improves your research, writing, and critical thinking skills, because you’re expected to work at a professional level but also still graded/reviewed in some detail. It’s good not to require an MA in a job listing that doesn’t actually require it just to winnow down applicants, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like that often gets treated like a silver bullet in online discussions about the field as though an MA never or rarely makes someone a better museum professional. Ideally, people should be able to get their foot in the door without an MA, but we also need to make sure that MAs and the associated skills are attainable by anyone – lower tuition, lower loan interest rates, flexible class schedules.

    • Dan says:

      Cassidy, I think it depends on the museum and the position. To be a director or content area curator, sure. But there’s no compelling reason that I can see why a collections manager or museum educator needing an MA. If a bachelor’s level engineer can build a bridge, a bachelor’s level museum professional can manage a collection. And generic bachelor’s degrees in education are far better prepared to be on museum education staffs than most MA prepared candidates (who have almost always taken far fewer courses in developmental stages and pedagogy). Also, isn’t the purpose of a bachelor’s education in part to foster research, writing, and critical thinking? We need a graduate degree for those skills? I hope not…

      However, I’m with you 100% about making a master’s degrees accessible, especially since graduate degrees are “the foot in the door” for so many positions and we are a very white and very economically privileged profession.

  2. Jason Dake says:

    The “$30,000 is a lot of money” idea needs to die. $30,000 should be the minimum any person makes for a full time job that requires a college degree of any kind, regardless of location. I think this is largely connected with who is in charge. $30,000 WAS a decent amount of money for people starting out in the 1980s or even 1990s. But today, costs have increased and salaries haven’t.

    Increases in tuition costs are also problematic, especially if multiple degrees are required. But it’s definitely a larger issue beyond the museum world. As long as loans are given out to cover costs, those costs will likely increase. But if we cut off or limit loans, less people go to college. Not to mention that graduating from college no longer indicates a person’s ability to match the skills needed for a particular job. (Or maybe it never did. Anyone want to chime in on this?)

    If the museum field is to tackle this within its own purview, perhaps the answer is to create programs that hire people with bachelor’s degrees at a decent salary while also helping them get their master’s degree. Imagine that – professional development funds that actually go toward professional development!

  3. […] wrote about the  controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a […]

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