As COVID-19 moves across the country, every sector of the museum workforce feels the pandemic’s power from the still employed, but working from home, to the temporarily suspended, to the recently let go. Every day museums and historic sites announce closures and massive layoffs, leaving many to wonder how museums will recover. One sector not much has been written about is independent consultants. Not museum employees who consult sporadically, but the group who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.
Being a consultant means you need to take work when it’s offered because a month from now when your calendar opens up the offer may have evaporated. It means your rates need to account for your business expenses, Social Security benefits and health care. It means working from home, punctuated by travel is your normal. And it means your access to COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program is delayed ’til April 10. Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, we checked in with a group of consultants to see how they’re doing. Here are their voices:
There are a lot of consultants in the museum world. There are great ones, good ones, and ones who should hone their skills a bit more. Museums hire consultants to provide advice, spearhead special initiatives, and fill gaps in their staffs on a temporary basis. In July we published a guest post by Sarah Erdman on a consultant’s view from the outside. Today’s post looks at consultants from the other direction–the inside out if you will.
Hiring a consultant to fill a specific task-oriented skill should be an easy fit. If you need a designer, a writer, a conservator–even an architect is a consultant of sorts–you advertise, review resumes, and interview. The winning candidate will plug a hole in your collective staff skill set. If, for example, you’re a small shop, it makes perfect sense to hire a consultant to walk through planning for new collections storage. You probably don’t have a conservator on staff, but neither do you have money to waste so good advice is important.
We’ve all seen talented staff become overworked and burned out when they take on too many tasks. Consultants allow museum and heritage organization leaders to put the breaks on ever-expanding job descriptions, at least temporarily. Yes, consultants cost money, but so does losing staff, either through attrition or illness. As a museum leader, it’s your job to integrate the consultant’s work into your organization. Hiring a consultant is not a judgement on anyone’s work ethic. Instead, it’s a chance to create an even better exhibit, program, or PR campaign.
But what if you need a consultant whose skills are broad based and theoretical? What if you want someone to help with mission, strategic planning or succession, topics that everyone has opinions about? What then? Here are some things to consider:
- A consultant’s work will only be as good as the information she gets. Make sure she receives the necessary reading material before she arrives. Previous plans, mission statements, job descriptions, whatever provides a sense of the problem she is there to explore.
- Your consultant is not a soothsayer. Make sure you and everyone else knows why she’s been invited.
- Make sure she meets everyone, and that everyone has a copy of her charge. This is important because you, your board, and staff may all mean different things when, for example, you hear the words “strategic plan.”
- Be sure your staff understands that for a consultant to work well, she needs to hear from everyone so encourage participation.
- Don’t hide the truth. Make sure your consultant has the whole story. Leave blame and baggage at the door.
- And last, don’t expect magic or miracles. Consultants whose specialty is strategic planning or governance can’t fix a broken organization; nor are they there to do your work for you. Be prepared to listen and roll up your sleeves when the final report arrives.
When I talk to museum professionals, especially those just establishing themselves
in the field, there is often a romanticized view of consulting work. You get to focus
on your passions, you keep things fresh, you have flexibility. And you can make a
living. All of these can be true, and working as an independent professional can be a
wonderful fit for many. However, I think it does all of us a disservice if we gloss over
the unique challenges independent professionals face, whether they remain for
many years or see themselves returning to employee status in the future
“Consultant” and “Founder” is a title that I’ve held for four years, starting when I left
my full time job to stay home with my baby. I was lucky I had that choice, the
position I left would have meant long hours away from home, and an uneven
schedule that I didn’t want. However, I also knew that I had professional passions I
wanted to nurture. The best (and most fiscally reasonable) way to balance giving up
a full time income was to become a consultant.
That makes it seem so simple, but of course it is more complicated than that. I was
lucky that my professional networks kicked in at the right moment, and I landed a
fulfilling project that helped me jumpstart. There was also the fact that we could
depend on my spouse’s income. It also doesn’t address the long stretches where I
had no projects to work on or the project I lost when I became pregnant again.
That is my story, but I knew that other independent professionals had a different
experience. I created a survey that I shared online to get feedback from others on
the benefits, challenges and motivations for getting into consulting.
The results came in fast and furious, and people were eager to share the many
benefits of being an independent professional. You have independence and
flexibility in your schedule, pay, location and projects. It can help bridge the gap if
there is a lack of full time work or give you a chance to collaborate with
organizations you are interested in. You can also focus your work on your passions.
Along with the benefits, the survey provided a cleareyed look at the challenges.
Freedom and the flexibility is often the main draw of independent work, but it is
exhausting to maintain. Balancing multiple projects sometimes results in a “feast or
famine” scenario where you are either overwhelmed with work or trying to keep
busy. You may be constantly on the hunt for projects or trying to prove your worth
on just one so when it’s time for a contract renewal you feel secure.
Sick days don’t exist…or parental/caregiver leave. Those are just times when you
aren’t working and aren’t getting paid. If you are the primary breadwinner it may
not feel stable. I’ve also experienced a different feeling as the trailing partner, I feel
like I need to pick up all the slack at home to compensate for my lower paycheck.
Within projects it can be hard to feel part of the workplace social aspect. Maybe you
aren’t onsite, maybe you are in at odd times or move from project to project. The boost you get from colleagues can be vital to mental wellbeing at work, and is often
missing from contract work.
That seems like a long list of negatives, but it is not meant as a complaint. Instead, it
is meant as a reminder of the challenges that come with all those benefits. If you are
considering contract work it is important to think about how it will affect all aspects
of your life including personal and longterm professional. If you are already an
independent professional, it is good to remember that the challenges you face are
unique to this type of work, and it is ok to acknowledge them, and look for solutions
that work for you..
The number of independent museum is professionals is growing. At the 2015
American Alliance of Museums conference 18% of attendees identified as
consultants, the largest group represented (Museum Magazine July/August 2015),
but it isn’t something that is frequently talked about or well understood by people
entering the field. For every person who does it by choice, there are others who
consult because jobs don’t exist or they aren’t able to take a full time position and
meet other responsibilities.
As contractors or potential contractors, we need to know our rights so we can
protect ourselves legally and financially. As independent contractors, we must speak
up when we need support from our professional networks, so that we are informed
and make sure potential employers are also informed. We also need to acknowledge
specific challenges we face in the work/social environment, and in our personal
lives. One of the points that survey respondents made again and again was not to
undersell your talents or the value of your time just because you believe in the cause or have a passion for your work. Your expertise deserves to be acknowledged and
your work fully compensated.
If you are a museum leader, you need to make sure that you know the legal
definition of “contractor,” and also think about why the position you’ve advertised
should be filled by a contractor not a staff person.. Keep your oversight expectations
in mind, (Are you a hands on or hands off manager?) and the scheduling needs of the
organization. Also, don’t forget the social aspect of work. Do you want your
contractors to participate in the daily life of the museum? Is it a requirement or a
choice? Remember, you are bringing in a consultant because they have expertise
and can provide you with a service. Respect their contribution and skills.
Including independent professionals in museum work can be a huge benefit to both sides. The contractor does work they are interested in, on a schedule that meets
their needs, while the museum gets some outside expertise and completes a project
that might otherwise get left behind. However, it isn’t a perfect fairytale fix, and it
doesn’t look the same as a staff position. If we acknowledge that, and keep it in mind
going forward everyone will be better off.
Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Who Am I?
The IRS is the final arbiter of whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” There are lots of resources on their website , but the details can be a little confusing. In general, if you provide a service to an organization, you are
probably an independent contractor. However, if the organization controls what will
be done and how it will be done then you are an employee. They have three
guidelines that you should assess to determine what your relationship with the
1. Behavioral : Does the company control or have the right to control what the
worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
2. Financial : Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the
payer? (These include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are
reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)
3. Type of Relationship : Are there written contracts or employee type benefits
(i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and
is the work performed a key aspect of the business?
For independent contractors in museums, it is critical to look at the “type of
relationship” assessment. The IRS specifically details that if the person provides
services that are “key aspects of the business” then they are more likely to be
controlled by the organization and therefore are employees. Also, the permanency
of the relationship needs to be looked at. “If you hire a worker with the expectation
that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or
period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an
It really does matter whether you fit the legal definition of employee or independent
contractor because it changes the tax and compensation responsibilities of you and
your employer. If you aren’t sure, you can file IRS Form SS-8, Determination of Worker
Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding
(PDF) but it may take 6 months to get a determination. For additional help, you can
also see if there is a small business development center, state office or nonprofit that provides guidance.
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explores how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at cabinetofcuriositiesva.com/blog/