The Salary Debate: Money, Meaning and Politics

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It’s been awhile, but I think it’s time to talk about salaries again. This morning I spent some time searching this blog for articles I’ve written about museum pay, from the gender pay gap, to the leadership pay gap, to questions about museum jobs and a living wage. What’s horrifying isn’t that I wrote so many, (I did) it’s that in 2016 the issues I outlined were more or less the same as today–inadequate salaries, gender pay gap, huge gaps between director’s pay and lowest paid FT staff, and lousy benefits–minus of course the pandemic, and the fact that AAM’s recent survey tells us COVID will devastate the field a second time, as it predicts 20-percent of us will leave the field entirely by 2024.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which released its findings this month, sounds less dire than AAM. For one thing, the BLS looks backward to project forward so we will need to wait ’til next April to fully understand the depth and breadth of COVID’s damage. In addition, the BLS only looks at numbers. It doesn’t ask the museum world how it feels about work, only who is employed, and if yes, doing what? According to the BLS “Overall employment of archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” It projects 4,500 openings annually over the next decade, adding cryptically “Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. Candidates seeking archivist, curator, museum technician, or conservator jobs should expect competition because of the high number of qualified applicants per job opening. Jobseekers with highly specialized training, a master’s degree, and internship or volunteer experience should have the best job prospects.” And all this for a median salary of $52,140, and the knowledge that if you are working full time and making less than $30,460, you are in the lowest 10-percent, and if you’re making more than $91,800, you are in the top 10-percent.

One of the lessons I’ve tried to internalize since George Floyd’s murder is that we white people of privilege are good at blathering, meaning we can latch onto an idea, sound like we understand, but don’t actually do anything. One of my own promises has been to say less and do more, to–in fact–do the work. (I do acknowledge the irony of any blogger saying they are going to say less, but I have a life outside these pages.) So I understand if you’re a museum leader whose heritage site or museum has recently opened. After months of lockdowns and false starts, it probably sets your hair on fire to think about salary equity when you’re up nights worrying about whether your organization will stay solvent through the summer. Everyone can grumble about directors’ salaries at the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art or the Museum of Natural History, but unless you work at MoMA, Glenn Lowry’s $4,130,549 salary, isn’t your worry. Your worry is your own director’s salary, those of your leadership, and most importantly those of your staff because until salaries and salary equity are a regular and necessary topic of conversation, there won’t be change.

Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who deaccessioning purists pilloried for his efforts to raise BMA staff wages by raising money through deaccessioning has in fact, managed to raise his lowest staff wages to $15/hour four years ahead of Maryland’s minimum wage change over. BMA has also announced that Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the former president of Spelman College who joined the museum as pro bono special counsel last spring, will establish an in-house task force on equity. Not everyone has the resources to take such bold action, but anyone who is a museum leader can start the discussion at the board and leadership level. Some things to consider:

  • Give your board some context: Are they aware what your state’s living wage is? Where are your museum’s lowest FT wages in comparison? Where are your hourly earners’ wages?
  • And where are your museum or heritage organization’s salaries in terms of the museum field? Does your board see and regularly discuss AAM’s salary survey? Do they understand that while they are responsible for hiring the museum leader, money allotted for salaries for the rest of the staff has a direct affect on an organization’s DNA?
  • COVID isn’t just an epidemic: Has your board read and discussed AAM’s COVID survey results?
  • Salaries have meaning: Has your board talked–really talked about the meaning of salaries–how if you are a Black woman and making 63-cents on the White man’s dollar, that not only do you take home less, your organization is complicit in saying you are worth less?
  • Staff matters, people matter. Do you talk about your staff with your board? Do you talk about them as contributors and what that looks like? Does your board have opportunities to meet staff and hear from them first hand?
  • Does your board see itself as part of a larger firmament, a museum-world currently threatened by a significant brain drain if one-fifth of the workforce walks away?

I am not saying any of this is easy. I once had a board member pivot in his chair so I spent the rest of a meeting about staff salaries staring at his back after I suggested our organization’s location was a theme park for the wealthy and thus challenging for staff making less than $15/hour to find housing. Regrettably, change takes time. Salaries render in cold hard cash what we think of the work we do, the people who do it, and they way we place people in racial and gender hierarchies. I want to acknowledge the many individuals and groups–not least of which is Museum Workers Speak— who continue to make museum wages an ongoing topic of discussion. AAM has done such good work helping us understand the workplace post-COVID, but one of the actions it could take would be to follow the American Library Association in endorsing a living wage for all museum workers.

When I first tackled this subject more than five years ago, I felt like I was ranting alone. But while it’s important to draw attention to the museum field’s systemic issues, it’s also important for museum leaders to look to putting their own houses in order. Until we put wages on the table and start educating our public, our boards, and ourselves that salaries are a political, cultural and social choice this will remain a difficult issue for the field.

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “The Salary Debate: Money, Meaning and Politics”

  1. museumdrip says:

    Great post. All the conversations around equity, diversity, justice, inclusion and accessibility in museums are useless if we can’t pay folks a living wage, and a wage that makes them feel worthy.


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