Museum Pay: Making Some Noise to Make Some Change

Pay Day

This Wednesday I will attend the New England Museum Association’s 100th Annual Meeting in Stamford, CT. Along with panel moderator Scott Wands (CT Humanities) and co-presenters Grace Astrove (Jewish Museum), Kelsey Brow (King Manor Museum), Ilene Frank (Connecticut Historical Society), and Diane Jellerette (Norwalk Historical Society), I will help lead a session titled “Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way!”

Despite the alliterative and slightly confrontational title, our goal is to bring people together to talk honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of museum work: salary. We will lead table discussions on the following topics: emerging professionals and pay; unpaid internships; salary and benefits negotiation; race and pay; and gender and pay inequity.

Our goal is to give participants the opportunity to move from table to table potentially participating in multiple discussions before reporting out to the whole group. In part, that’s because there is no one size fits all compensation story. Pay is personal and pay is organizational. Pay relates to your personal narrative, your personality, and hugely to bias.

For many board members, staff represent a yawning cavern of expense and escalating benefits. And while boards may adjust an executive director’s salary and benefits package to attract and keep the multi-talented person they believe their museum deserves, beyond the aggregate numbers, they rarely dip into compensation for staff further down the food chain. Thus, for the most part, pay is an executive director versus current or potential staff question, meaning when an offer is made both individuals need to be at the top of their game. The executive director needs to fully understand her budget, know whether she can negotiate and how far she’s willing to go. The individual needs to have some sense of salary range–which is why posting salaries and ranges is so important–and how much it costs to live in the area in question and meet expenses. She also needs to know what she thinks she’s worth, and whether she’s willing to walk away if an offer is too low.

Negotiations like these are made more complicated by gender and race. Job applicants have to find ways to ask whether the museum has completed a pay equity survey and adjusted salaries accordingly. Presumably any organization that’s already had a Marc Benioff-like moment¬†would be overjoyed to talk about it, but you can’t be sure. And in some organizations, too many questions — from women and particularly from women of color — translate into a stridency organizations want to steer clear of.

Then there is the whole issue of new professionals negotiating for the first time, or those still in graduate school who want or need internships. We would like to announce that unpaid internships were as antiquated as the rotary phone, but sadly they’re not. NEMA has been stalwart in its support for mutually beneficial internships, but the museum world is still riddled with epically bad The Devil Wears Prada experiences. And being treated like crap when you’re being paid is one thing, but being treated like crap for donating your time seems like the definition of insanity.

One of the blue-sky hopes for this session is to actually come up with a series of proposals that will help move the salary debate forward. Since not all of you will be in Stamford this week, if there are changes you’d like to see — organizationally, regionally, and nationally — let us know. Let’s make some noise and make some change.

Joan Baldwin


4 Comments on “Museum Pay: Making Some Noise to Make Some Change”

  1. Janice Klein says:

    Hi Joan,

    A couple of things related to this topic have been on my mind.

    First, I think we need to develop a clear line between internships and volunteer work. I know many of us may want to make our resumes look better by “improving” our titles, but it no longer does anyone any good to be called an intern when they are actually unpaid staff (volunteers) getting “experience”. An internship needs to be coordinated with some kind of training program (certificate, degree or ?) and have a formal learning component. And be “paid” either in money or training credit. Perhaps the folks who teach museum studies could work on this.

    The other issue is that we really don’t have the data to tell us whether our sector is just under-funded or whether salaries within an institution are truly unequal. What is the “usual” relationship of the ED’s salary to other staff members? Also, it would be useful to know what percentage of a museum’s overall budget goes to salaries and how that compares to other non-profits.

    Thanks for continuing to champion these issues.

  2. Joan, Thank you for your post. I agree with the title–noise is needed in order to make change in this area. One way we can make noise is by acting. Many museum associations have responded to demands that they list salary ranges in job listings that are published on their respective websites. The American Alliance of Museums is not one of them. It seems that AAM will not adopt this practice unless they feel pressure to do so from their members. I have created an online petition addressed to AAM on this topic. I encourage you, and all of your readers to sign. I hope you’ll help spread the word.

    Thank you!

    Eric Morse

  3. Michael Holland says:

    This should be a very interesting session! Will the reports be recorded or transcribed so that they can be shared more broadly? I will not be at this event to participate, but I look forward to hearing about how it goes. Thanks for keeping this issue at the forefront. While it is of immediate importance to many of us individually, it’s also crucial to the sustainability of the museum field as a whole.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s