Putting the Dipstick Down on the Museum Workforce

Milchstraßenräuber – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57251229

It’s a month since my last post. In that time Covid and all its attendant problems took a back seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To quote Thomas Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco in a recent Instagram post, “Against the backdrop of the atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering it is causing, it seems almost disrespectful to speak of anything else.” A week ago, a quote from the Ukrainian Library Association made the rounds of social media. The Association posted to cancel its annual meeting writing, “We will reschedule as soon as we finish vanquishing our invaders.” How about the rest of us, would we be that brave?

It’s against that background–the idea that in an instant you can be forced to flee home, family, friends, and your known world–that it’s time to put the dipstick down on our own. So what’s the latest on the museum workplace? What I’m reading seems to offer some diametrically opposed messaging. Nationally inflation is at a 40-year high and as of December 2021, 61-percent of us were living pay-check-to-pay check. Among that group, those who are Gen Z’ers, have an average savings is $1,158. On the other hand, LinkedIn News reports that 38-percent of employees in the arts plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, along with 37-percent of those working in recreation and travel. I think it’s safe to assume some individuals in either group are museum folk.

These two data lines don’t necessarily seem to intersect unless we believe poor pay makes us more mobile, and maybe it does. Couple that with AAM’s survey of museums post-Covid where some 73-percent of respondents reported that thanks to PPP funding, their staffs were back at pre-March 2020 capacity, although hourly positions continue to be hard to fill. That group may overlap with the 38-percent of employees planning to switch jobs. They were the most discounted at the height of the pandemic, and, since they couldn’t work at home, the first to be let go, so it’s no surprise they aren’t rushing to return, and hopefully have found work elsewhere. Not to mention yesterday’s stabbing at MoMA. It redefined, in the most horrible way, the reason we call them front-line workers, and the risks they take in dealing with the public.

I want to pause here and say that when AAM released its Trendswatch report in the winter of 2021, I wrote a post expressing concern that it had missed the boat when it came to women. I felt women deserved more of a mention since they were disproportionately affected by Covid. Not that it’s all about me (it’s not), but it was such a relief (and a pleasure) to find AAM’s new Covid survey devotes time specifically to the pandemic’s effects on women and women of color.

So, so far, we know what we know: We’re struggling, everything costs more, 40-percent of us lost income during Covid from which we’ve likely not recovered. Women, who account for 51-percent of the museum workforce, bore a greater increase in responsibilities as staffs contracted. They also report they are less optimistic, more burned out, and, although the survey didn’t put it this bluntly, in many cases their poor compensation is overlaid by the gender pay gap. In addition, we’re still working through a lot of post-Covid fear and weirdness at returning to work or returning to work in person, and yet many museums are open or extending hours to something resembling life pre-pandemic times.

So clearly another shoe will drop. And apparently it’s the same old shoe: race, gender, and class aka income disparity, a subject highlighted in AAM’s post-Covid survey. In addition to its Covid data, AAM is also partnering with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and AAMD to try to understand how or whether the field has moved the needle on staff diversity. As Mellon puts it, “More than a marker of progress to date, this data serves as a tool for the future—whether quantifying the challenges we still face, establishing a baseline against which to measure impact, or equipping museums with the insight they need to structure and implement pipeline-building programs.” Mellon acknowledges that while there has been progress, it’s uneven. I would add that it’s uneven because too often museum boards, and in many cases their leaders, feel that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Many of them see their institutions as fine. Maybe not perfect–more money would be nice–but fine, and what’s fine to those at the top of the food chain, is often untenable to those further down.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the work begun on diversity and gender in the summer of 2020 remains unfinished. AAM, AAMD, the Mellon Foundation, the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH) are all gathering data, but the randomness of equitable and humane work conditions remains a problem, a problem that is most acute for women and particularly women of color. I’ll close with the same suggestions I made a year ago:

  • Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
  • Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
  • Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
  • Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
  • Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
  • Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
  • Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
  • Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
  • Got time for a podcast? Listen to HBR’s Women at Work.

See you next month. In the meantime, be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin



Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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