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7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


Michael Holland Productions, Natural History Exhibit Features

Several years ago, a good friend of mine and I were talking about our careers, and he asked how mine was going. I said that I was pretty much doing my dream job, I only wished that I could get paid more. His response was, “I don’t understand why you’re not. How many people in the world are there who know how to do what you do? And it’s not like your skill set is used to produce something that nobody cares about. You’re not holed up in your basement writing obscure poetry in an extinct language or something. Everybody goes to museums—millions of people have paid money to see and learn from the things that you make. Tons of people use my work every day too (he works in telecommunications), but I get paid accordingly, and I make enough to afford a home and a family, and unless I do something stupid, I’ll retire comfortably. I don’t get why that can’t happen for you. What’s wrong with museums?”

It’s been almost fifteen years since that conversation, and I still don’t have a complete answer to his question, but I’m getting closer. I’ve spent the years since then trying a few different strategies to improve my situation. I’ve worked as a staff member at museums from small to as large as they get, and I’ve worked as an independent contractor servicing both. During this journey, I’ve recognized some common factors that exert downward pressure on museum wages. Some of these factors may have to do with specific decisions and policies of museums themselves, while others may have evolved more organically under broader economic conditions, rather than by design or intention. This list is not exhaustive and there are probably other factors that I haven’t yet recognized, but it’s a place to start. Below are seven factors that are keeping wages unsustainably low for museum workers.

1. So It Is Written—Structure, Law, and Policy

Many museums are affiliated with governmental entities. Museums at state universities are staffed by people who are actually public employees (just like the football coaches, but without the exorbitant salaries). Sometimes this is helps employees (legislatively mandated cost-of-living pay increases), but the structural framework of employee classification can put some hard limits on salaries, making it difficult to change compensation significantly without also changing your title and job description. This means that even if the museum has success raising substantial funding from the private sector, they may not be allowed to spend it on their staff in the same ways that a private business can.

A significant effect of these structural limitations is that in order to maintain the level of quality expected of a museum, many of them are increasingly reliant on private contractors to do things that their own staff also do, or used to do before downsizing eliminated their positions (see Corporate Culture below). Contractor pay is not limited by job titles or classifications, and is instead a reflection of what the market will bear, and they charge what it takes to stay in business. Museums are paying what the work is actually worth, but they pay someone other than their own staff to do it. This allows administrators to follow the rules and stay within the compensation ranges dictated by governmental job classifications, since they’re technically spending the money on stuff (goods and services) instead of staff (their own personnel).

Sometimes, there are exceptions that will allow salary adjustments without reclassification. However, these are often not readily apparent to employees (sometimes even their supervisors may not know about them). Because utilizing them requires special action on the part of your supervisor, and often from their supervisor as well, and they may not always be well-received. Some actions, such as a “strategic pay adjustment” (in which the employee has another job offer and the museum is essentially forced to match or exceed that offer if they want to keep them) have high potential to create an adversarial situation. If they really need to keep you at a critical moment, you might get the raise. But they’re not likely to forget how you got it, and this may have repercussions in the future.

2. Corporate Culture—Bottom Line Decisions from the Top

Museums today are heavily dependent on private money. This is not new, as many of our greatest historic museums wouldn’t be here without the largesse of their founding contributors. Getting that private money means making relationships with those who have it. This has had significant effects at the top. More museum directorships today are filled by people from the corporate sector, since that’s where the money is. This may have some financial advantages, but I have to wonder how it’s changing the culture of museums. (Some museums today even call their director the CEO.)

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Like many companies, museums these days are doing more with fewer people, and have surprisingly small staffs who wear a lot of hats. You can see this in museum job descriptions of available positions that read like the jobs of three people combined into one. With fewer people on staff, anything beyond daily operations can exceed in-house capacity, and when it does, work gets contracted out. (To get an extent of this phenomenon, just go to the exhibit hall at the next AAM annual meeting and count how many businesses are there offering things that are or used to be done by museum staff—exhibit fabricators, conservators, educators, content developers, etc.) This arrangement allows the company—sorry, the museum—to trim operating expenses and then spend on specific projects only as needed, rather than carry the ongoing expense of a larger staff.  I haven’t seen the math to allow me to say for certain whether or not this ultimately saves the museum money in the long run, but it might look favorable on paper during the tenure of any given administration.

There’s enough outsourcing happening that it may be getting easier for museum leaders to feel like they sometimes have to find someone more specialized or capable than their own staff to get the job done. (That idea may not seem very radical if they’re accustomed to routinely hiring other firms to handle aspects of their business.)  This perspective may help justify both the higher expense of the contractor and the lower pay of their staff, and could become self-fulfilling if the most talented staff members continue to be downsized out or leave for the private sector in search of better pay.

3. What’s your ROI?—Measuring Employee Value

One area where the museum sector appears to differ from the corporate world is the difficulty of measuring the value of any given employee to the organization.  In business, a company can estimate with sometimes remarkable accuracy the return on investment (ROI) of hiring an employee, and quarterly earnings reports can validate those estimates.  But most museums are not for-profit entities.  They don’t have shareholders to please, or CEOs with their pay directly linked to the performance of the company by stock options.

I’ve sometimes wondered if this difference might keep museums from really thinking about what an employee is actually worth in monetary terms.  From my admittedly limited perspective, about the only position in a museum that I can think of where employee performance translates directly into measurable monetary gain for the organization is the development director, since they’re literally the ones who bring in the money.  A museum director can look at the math and see that Janet brought in $2.4 million last year, and in many museums, the Director of Development is one of the most highly paid staff members.  The work of other staff members can bring monetary benefits, but they’re more difficult to quantify.  When everybody busts their posteriors in support of a big new exhibit and visitor and membership numbers increase, that’s rightly considered a success, but it doesn’t usually lead to a raise or make year-end bonus checks start flying around.

4. One-Rung Ladder—Limited Advancement Opportunity

Some of the very specialized core positions within museums don’t really have much of a career ladder to climb.  Conservators and preparators are responsible for the preservation and ongoing care of the objects and specimens at the core of a museum.  Exhibit fabricators literally build the stuff that the public goes to the museum to see.  Registrars keep track of what we’ve got, security personnel keep it safe, and educators make sense of it for visitors.  Without these people, you won’t have much of a museum.  Yet their compensation is often not proportionate to their skills, talents, educations (and the expense of obtaining them) or necessity.  Those who manage to stick around long enough may find that they advance somewhat by becoming the de facto (or designated) manager of other coworkers in their labs/shops, but they’re not going to go from technician to an upper level executive position.  And really, they usually don’t want to.  While they would dearly appreciate the salaries that can come with those positions, (sometimes the disparity is pretty appalling), they don’t want those jobs.  They want to do what they’re educated to do – what made them want to work in a museum in the first place.  To the general public, working in a museum is regarded as being interesting and even prestigious, and wouldn’t likely be thought of as a “dead end job”.  But sometimes it can be, economically.

5. Apples to Pomegranates—Understanding Internal Equity

Hiring someone at a salary greater than other staff members doing the same or similar jobs is a recipe for conflict, and museums are rightly sensitive to this reality.  I’ve had salary negotiations in which I was advised clearly that my compensation would be limited mainly by that of existing staff members.  I’ve heard things like “We’re paying Kevin $32,000/year and he’s worked here for 17 years, so it’s not fair to Kevin if we hire you at $50,000,” or “We’ve got people here with a Ph.D that don’t even make that much, so your expectations aren’t realistic.”  In essence, because others aren’t paid all that well, you can’t be either.

Internal equity is a valid concern, but our understanding of equity might be incomplete if we’re basing it solely on salary.  Broader economic trajectories over time can have enormous impact on whether or not a salary is truly sufficient.  Nowhere has this impact been stronger than in housing costs.  A staff member who bought their house for $40,000 in 1988 might be able to get by today on $34,000/year.  But someone hired today in the same city where a house now costs $500,000 and a one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,600/month will not, unless they bring a pile of home equity with them (hint- this isn’t a thing for pretty much anyone under 30, and many well beyond that age).  If the new hire is younger and has typical student loan debt, they’ll be even worse off.  These two employees may have the same salary, but their economic realities are not even close to comparable.  Perhaps a better definition of internal equity would be based on “effective income”, defined as how much money each of our two comparable staff members has remaining each month after their housing costs are paid.

This suggestion might be an over-simplification, but it’s at least a place to start thinking about the very real generational economic differences that our usual understanding of “equity” utterly fails to take into account.  And some of us would probably have a rude awakening when we realize that all of those young new hires out there might need to be paid two or three times what older staff members are earning to achieve effective income equity.

This issue goes beyond concerns of fairness.  We will need to see some pretty radical changes in compensation just to pass the torch on to the next generation of museum workers.  Mr. Longtimer will retire someday, and whoever fills his shoes will have current living expenses.  They’ll need a salary to match if we want them to stay.  I worry that many museums are not prepared for this eventuality, because it presents itself gradually, often one staff member at a time.  If everyone in the museum all reached retirement age on the same day and had to be replaced next Tuesday with new employees paid a sustainable wage, perhaps the magnitude of the problem would be more apparent.

6. Riding The Marriage Carriage—The Spousal Income Subsidy

I’ve known no small number of museum workers whose careers are essentially allowed to exist by their spouse’s earnings.  (He’s a conservator, she’s an attorney…)  Because their spouse has a much higher income, they can do their dream job with less concern for what it pays.  They can afford to work for less, so they do.  That strategy isn’t viable for people whose spouses also have modest incomes, and it’s definitely not an option for most single workers.  To what extent are museums financially dependent on hiring people who bring along a supplemental income to offset their lower pay?  With a steady supply of people who would love to work in a museum and don’t have to worry so much about their earnings, museums may not have much incentive to raise salaries.  I’ve never seen any data on percentages of married or single museum staff or staffer/spouse earnings ratios, but it might be worth looking into.

7. Market Saturation–Many Applicants for Few Jobs

The number of colleges and universities offering museum studies degrees has increased substantially in recent years, and it seems like the number of qualified applicants now far exceeds the number of available museum jobs.  With so many trying to get a foot in the museum door, there’s little incentive for those behind that door to offer larger salaries.  (How many unpaid internships are out there?)  Many positions consequently have high turnover rates as workers make a series of diagonal (i.e. not quite lateral but barely trending upward) moves from job to job in search of better pay.  When your applicants are hungry for a job and are perpetually “the new guy”, they’re not in much of a position to ask for the moon.

One possible upside to outsourcing might be that if enough of the new fresh talent decides to forgo the pursuit of museum employee status and instead go straight into business as contractors, museums could find that they can’t fill positions without upping the ante.  But it might take an awful lot of this to shift the balance.

Collectively, these wage-suppressing factors seem like a monumental challenge, and they are formidable.  I haven’t offered my thoughts here on possible solutions or the tactics for realizing them.  But it seems like the change that museum workers need will not likely come in one big action.  I’m hoping that I’ve inspired museum personnel at all levels to look for each of these factors in their own museums and careers, to begin discussing possible solutions, sharing any successes, and working together toward a sustainable future for our museums and the people who make them function.  Thank you for reading!

About the Author

Michael Holland has been interested in natural history (especially dinosaurs!) since he was a very young child, and began working in the museum field in 1989 as a university student.  Since then, he has followed this passion and developed the technical skills of a fossil preparator and the refined artistic skills of a sculptor and metalsmith to occupy a unique space at the intersection of art and science.  Michael’s work can be seen at a variety of museums including Museum of the Rockies, U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), Museum of the North, U.C. Berkeley Museum of Paleontology, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.


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  1. Thank you for this article; I was especially struck by your discussion of internal equity–this is also applicable to other low-paying fields, notably teaching, and I heard a media story recently about how some school systems are looking into providing affordable housing for teachers in areas where they can’t otherwise afford to live, e.g. San Francisco. Should at least the larger museums provide entry level workers with housing/housing assistance? Hope to see more discussion on this topic. . .

  2. I think they’ve left out one important reason: the money just isn’t there. There are museums that struggle to exist, let alone pay their employees a sustainable wage. For private, non-profits, grants and donors tend not to fund staffing, opposed to materials and exhibits and when ticket prices can’t go above $7-8 dollars in a particular economy, keeping the lights on can be a struggle. Not to mention medical insurance or retirement benefits now being rare in any non-government or large corporation job.

    1. Alice’s response and Kim’s are the best to this piece, which seems like it comes from somewhere well above the real museum world. For a space that’s dominated by women at the lowest end of the salary curve, it’s similarly dominated by men at the top. Of the 11 largest heritage sites in America, the majority are headed by men, and staffed by them at the VP levels. But the kicker is that the money to do anything at all, even just to keep the lights on, still has to come from the same place: asking a donor or guest for every single dime. And to accomplish that, most museums have to work harder at doing much more with much less, leveraging scarce resourses to create engaging programs that capture and retain visitors, and then pitch their importance to donors who will — we hope — want those institutions to survive because they matter in some fundamental way. Throwing around business school jargon isn’t going to help any museum from closing if those fundamental issues aren’t effectively addressed.

    2. Hi, Kim –

      Thanks for your comments. For many museums, meeting the basic operating expenses is a constant challenge, especially in smaller communities where there are many needs competing for donor dollars and public funds are minimal. If the money just isn’t there, nobody can be well compensated. While I do not dispute this truth, my thoughts on this issue are colored by some of my own experiences with larger museums where the money is there. Seeing the compensation offered by even some of the big historic museums that have substantial endowments and very strong donor support, and finding that it’s often not much better than at much smaller and less deep-pocketed museums has informed my perspective on this. If there are millions of dollars flowing around and staff members are still not earning a sustainable wage, it’s hard not to think that maybe some rethinking of resource allocation might be worth considering.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful presentation of ideas around this important topic. I just got accepted to present a presentation at The TCG Conference inJune I’m calling “The People Crisis in the Arts” where I will be sharing some similar points. In the performing arts a Google Doc recently circulated where hundreds of people shared their titles and salaries and it was eye opening to see in black and white.

    1. Hi, Erik –

      Have you given your presentation yet? If there is video (or perhaps a Powerpoint file for the talk), I would be interested in seeing it.



  4. I might suggest a corollary to #6, which is the ability of spouses to carry benefits for a museum working spouse. That’s the case in my situation. When we needed to trim our deficit, the board chose to alter our benefits packages in ways that made them more expensive. I was able to easily switch to my husband’s health insurance, but that wasn’t sustainable for everyone. The changes led to three retirements.

    1. Hi, Amanda –

      This is an important aspect of #6 for sure! Unfortunately, having our health insurance tied to employment (as most in America do) can create these kinds of consequences. It makes me sad to think of a museum losing talent because of this.

  5. Great article! I started my career as a Curator/Historian, helped a consultant write a successful federal grant, and then our Exec Dir decided he could save money with me writing applications instead of hiring a consultant. In the 20 years since, it’s flipped. I’m a freelance grantwriter/museum consultant, only I give away more museum consulting than I’m paid to do because it’s easier to use ROI to justify hiring a grantwriter–a quantifiable expense. The other examples you give are also excellent–I’ve seen salary levels stagnate for all the reasons you list.

  6. Not surprised that the male author missed this, but an analysis of gender is critical here. It is widely known that as professions become female majority, wages will stagnate or drop. By every demographic dataset available, the museum professions and prepatory pipelines inti it (art history, museum studies, conservation, etc) are strongly female dominated. It’s classic embedded systemic misogyny. Those male CEOs are not suffering for compensation or benefits.

    1. Hello, Alice –

      Thanks for this important observation. A walk down the hall at many museums makes it quite apparent that a majority of the staff are female. I personally see a little more balance within my corner of the museum world, where I have frequent interaction with curators and scientific staff (which have historically skewed male, although we’re seeing some welcome and overdue change in recent years), but writ large, the museum sector employs mostly women. Interestingly (and admittedly anecdotally), I’ve also found that in many of the museums that I have had experience with, the most highly-paid staff are women. However, so are those with the most modest salaries, which is probably what would be expected when women make up the bulk of the sample population. I’m intrigued by your comment that the education/preparatory pipeline into the museum field also skews female. Do you know how this compares to other “humanities” fields in general (education, sociology, literature, etc.)?

  7. In my forty years as a museum professional I have always know that generally across the board that museum employees are overly qualified and under compensated. They are for the most part very passionate about their work and usually willing to work for less than “fair market” value. This fact is often exploited or certainly used to justify maintaining depressed salary schedules. Building a case for better salaries has to come with figuring out how measure “ROI” for each museum positions and not just for development officers and directors. Thanks for sharing your article.

  8. I am a registrar – working at a university museum – with nearly 40 years experience, a Masters degree and a number of MBA level business courses under my belt. I earn several thousand dollars less than our museum’s fiscal officer (the person who keeps our books and pays our bills). Our current fiscal officer has worked in our unit for less than a year and is at least 20 years younger than I am.

    I believe one of the main reasons I earn less is that there are very few museum registrars around – even within our entire state – whereas the university has many dozens of fiscal officers on staff.

    While the university makes some attempt to base salaries on a number of variables, one statistic they look at is salaries for comparable positions outside the university, but within the region. Unfortunately there are very few registrars within our “market” and most of the people who do have this title work at smaller museums (some work part-time) and have much less experience, training, background, etc. than I do.

    However, fiscal officer salaries are compared to other bill paying/accounting jobs throughout the state; and, within the university, fiscal officers with many years on the job are compensated at rates commensurate with their level of experience.

    It also doesn’t help that nobody knows what a museum registrar does. There’s a 515 page book out there called “Museum Registration Methods 5th Edition” (“MRM5 for short) that explains everything that falls under the registrar’s purview – in case your interested in finding out!

    In addition to having to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of current best practices within the field, a good portion of my responsibilities goes towards the training of students interested in museum careers.. Several of my students have gone on to become registrars/collections managers, museum administrators, educators, etc. And they leave school often with many thousands of dollars in school loans hanging over their heads.

    My students need to be at least as well compensated as the people who pay the bills.

  9. Another factor driving the growing use of consultants may also be limitations imposed by government grants and foundation funding that prohibit “overhead” or sustaining costs, often interpreted to include a ban on using money for salaries and other employment expense, even if the staff being supported are vital for delivery of the funded program. E.g, I can’t pay my permanent collections manager for the time it takes them to mount the objects for this exhibition, but if those mounting services are included in the deliverables from an exhibition design firm, they can be covered by the grant that is paying for the new display.

    1. Hi, Eva –

      Good observation! This is another twist on the structural and policy strictures in Factor #1. It’s not that the person who hires us doesn’t want to pay us more, it’s that they’re prohibited from doing so by the rules of their grant funding source. Often, these limitations are not readily apparent to employees (who didn’t write the grant application and aren’t familiar with the conditions).

  10. Alice: Thank you for this important statement on gender. We ALL need to “mind the gap!”

    Sorry Michael, I see a lot of obfuscation in your post, & don’t think you are very “close” yet.
    1. Structure Etc.: My government museum job 28 years ago implemented pay structured by classification tools measuring such variables as responsibilities, cost of errors, number of reports supervised, education, experience, etc.,etc. . . Is this too complicated for museum employers today?
    2.Bottom Line: “museums these days are doing more with fewer people” is NOT an accurate description. Rather, museums are doing more by EXPLOITING their people [who comply because we love our jobs]. If museum corporations increase expectations,& responsibilities–to say nothing about the related skyrocketing of stress levels [leave for which now exceeds physical injury insurance claims in our field], surely museum employers cannot legally or morally think they don’t have to increase compensation. Museums can start solving this problem by being BRUTALLY realistic about planning goals & objectives to actually MATCH the human & financial resources available. Museum ethics require that museum employers “protect” their employees just as they protect collections. I believe this ethical obligation includes protection of museum workers from exploitation.
    3. ROI: We should understand that for-profit corporations exploit their workers equally or more-so. They are NOT good models for museums!
    4. One-Rung: Thank you for identifying the PRIMARY problem: “their compensation is often not proportionate to their skills” FULL STOP. We need work to address this critical problem, not more excuses for failing to do what is right, just, & fair.
    5: Internal Equity: I believe your logic here to be false. Justifying underpaying workers because everybody is underpaid cannot be considered any reason for denying fair compensation for work. Instead of “exploration for all!”, why not endorse “fair pay for all”? We want the tide to raise ALL boats, not to scuttle some. The “effective income” concept is insulting to me. If my spouse is an illegal immigrant, should I be deported too? Let’s get back to the essential issue of fair compensation for the work accomplished, rather than keep looking for ways to, justify or slide around it.
    6. Spousal Income: Ditto the above. If my museum doesn’t pay me what my actual work warrants according to its real -world responsibilities & formal classification measurement [existing tools need to be implemented–it’s NOT rocket science!], then my employer is getting more than it pays for–a quick & dirty definition of exploitation [in some jurisdictions for criminality].
    7. Market Saturation: Thanks for the reference to the “reserve army of the unemployed” among recent grads. Clearly, this “MUST” [course # prefix where I taught museum studies] be addressed as a top priority for the sake of future emerging professionals.

    In closing, I have to keep referencing Elaine Heuman Gurian in the book Institutional Trauma: Major Change in Museums and its Effect on Staff, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1995, pp. 20-21:

    “If our work in museums is evidence of our collective commitment to enhancing the quality of life for society, then we must be attentive to maintaining a high quality of life for our work community.”

    1. Hi, Paul –

      Thanks for your thorough response. I think that we’re largely in agreement on this topic, but perhaps some clarification might be helpful. My intent with this piece was NOT to justify or excuse any of the conditions that I’ve observed. It was only to identify them as I have seen and experienced them.

      1. This was simply an observation that in governmentally affiliated museums, classification counts, and that what you’re called can draw some pretty hard limits around what you’ll be paid. Many workers who don’t really have another title to promote too end up stuck, and in many instances we may well be seeing a failure to use the existing classification tools.

      2. Doing more with fewer people absolutely becomes exploitative when the objectives and resources don’t align, and it does have very real consequences on the health of employees. Protecting and caring for staff as diligently as collections is an idea that museums should practice.

      3. I wasn’t suggesting that corporations are a good model for a museum at all. (I don’t believe that they are.) I was just pointing out that their profit-centric focus makes it easier for them to pay attention not just to what it costs to hire an employee, but also to what that employee brings to the bottom line. Museums (and probably most non-profits) are keenly aware of the costs of hiring someone, but I’m wondering how they think about the return on their investment. Without that consideration, it might become pretty easy to see staff as something that only effects the expenses column of the ledger. When financial conditions get tight, eliminating positions might seem more attractive if the benefits of having an employee are overshadowed by the costs of employing them.

      4. I think we’re on the same wavelength here!

      5. Again, I’m not saying that one employee’s low pay should justify another’s, but I am saying that this is a line of reasoning that I have been offered by museum leaders during salary negotiations. I don’t think it’s right, but I know it’s real, and it IS false logic. Fair pay for all is the very thing that I’m seeking. I’m sorry to have offended with the concept of “effective income”, but it’s a very stark reality that inflated housing costs have drastically changed the picture for younger people. Those who managed to buy years ago (sometimes not even all that many years ago in some areas) spend far less of their monthly pay today on housing than someone who did not. That’s just math, and if museums want to understand why staff can’t afford to stay in their jobs, they’ll need to take an honest look at this part of the equation.

      6. Again, we’re on the same page. If the museum isn’t paying what your work is worth, then the relationship is out of balance and unfair.

      7. Agreed.

      I’m not familiar with Elaine’s book, but I’ll be checking it out soon. Thanks for the tip!

  11. This is a nicely done summary of some of the challenges museums face. As a director for over 30 years, I can attest to the extreme difficulty of making financial ends meet. Salaries definitely do not keep pace with COL (including the director’s), and over the last five years health insurance coverage has seriously declined while costs for coverage have exploded. Changes and challenges are coming with increased frequency and urgency, both at the national and local level. People expect and demand more from a museum visit, but it’s like being ordered to make bricks without straw. because there is no money to meet those demands. At the heart of the matter is that most folks don’t appreciate or understand museums and their missions to the degree previous generations did. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t necessary to explain the necessity of history and preserving and sharing our heritage; today it is viewed as something of an oddity. That change in mindset translates into less dollars for everything. A sad fact is that people are willing to donate more money to help cats and dogs than donate money to museums for preserving our shared heritage.

    1. Hi, Brad –

      We’re definitely in the midst of a cultural shift in terms of how the public sees (and values) museums, and I don’t doubt that sourcing funds is becoming a great challenge. Thanks for your comments, it’s great to hear a voice from the Director’s office!

  12. Thank you for this systematic, and unfortunately relatable, summary of museum wage suppression. Can you offer advice or resources for anyone interested in starting a serious conversation with their human resources department and/or board of trustees? I would appreciate it if you could direct the conversation from the perspective of someone in one of these “dead-end” positions with limited influence.

  13. If a museum can’t survive while paying decent wages, I’m not sure it shouldn’t do the decent thing and close up shop…

  14. I want to echo Alice’s comments that in a field that is 46.7-percent female (based on the 2017 BLS figures), and therefore on the verge of turning pink collar, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that it is low paid and under-benefited. And has been for years. The author also left out another point in his discussion of market saturation. Many new museum professionals begin their careers with an astounding amount of debt to those same graduate schools. A graduate degree is a requirement for many museum jobs, but the costs–just like the low pay–drive many creative humans to other fields. This creates an ongoing tension between the desire to have a diverse staff who bring multiple backgrounds to the table, and the ability of a diverse staff to survive on poor pay. As we’ve counseled about a million times on Leadership Matters ( newly hired staff need to use MIT’s Living Wage calculator to see if they can live on the salary that’s being offered, and they need to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Last boards need to grapple with the value of their staffs. Museum workers matter. They keep mediocrity from the door. Boards need to invest in them.

  15. Hi, LSM1213 –

    The student debt issue is a HUGE issue here! (Says the guy who finished school in 1995 and finally paid off the student loans with life insurance proceeds from his father’s death in 2010…) I mentioned it briefly in the section on internal equity, but I wasn’t sure that student debt actively suppresses museum wages, so I didn’t put it on my list as a wage-suppressing factor. But having the requirement of a graduate degree to get a job that won’t pay for the cost to obtain said degree is very much a factor in driving workers away from the museum field. Thanks for participating in this discussion!

  16. 6. The Spousal Income Subsidy – I would argue that this is also the ‘family income subsidy’, where people from upper-middle class backgrounds are financially supported by family in order to break in to the art/museum world. This furthers the pay issue and causes disastrous inequalities in the arts world, but is increasingly unavoidable due to poor salaries.

    1. Hello, Emily –

      This is absolutely an important component, and is a key factor in the diversity problem that the museum sector experiences. Thanks for the addition! It seems like museums have some significant barriers on both ends of the career path that result in a socioeconomic sorting effect. On the front end, the cost of the necessary education is prohibitive to a substantial portion of families. On the back end, the salary paid to many museum workers is such that only those who can afford to have a modest income can stay in the job. In contrast, some other fields such as medicine or law also have high educational costs, but the salaries earned can be significantly higher as well. It would be interesting to know what if any effect this better back end has on the overall diversity of those fields.

  17. I see the argument made all the time that museum studies graduates are saturating the market, but there isn’t any evidence for this. First, the number of programs hasn’t grown that much in recent years (only a very small handful have launched since the early 2000s); second, according to datausa, there are 700 museum studies graduates per year. Given that many of them are already employed, not all of them are looking for jobs. And certainly some of them would have entered the job market with a different type of MA (art history, maybe) a generation ago, when museum studies was less popular.

    1. Hi, Tara –

      I must confess that the evidence that I’ve seen on market saturation is largely anecdotal, mainly via conversations with people with museum studies educations who have expressed difficulty breaking into a competitive job market. (Anytime I exhibit at AAM and ASTC, I’m approached by several with resumes in hand, asking if I’m looking for help.) These people seemed to feel like the ratio of museum jobs to applicants is unfavorable, (hence why they’re looking to the private sector) but the statistics may well offer a more complete narrative. I’ve also heard from members of hiring committees within museums express surprise at the volume of applications submitted, although that phenomenon may not be entirely driven by the number of people with museum studies degrees, and instead simply be a reflection of an overall tight employment market (this was definitely a big factor during the 2007 recession).

      I should clarify that my intent here is NOT to tell people “Hey, stop majoring in museum studies, you’re flooding the job market!” Our field will continue to need new talent, and I want to see anyone interested in joining us to have an opportunity to do so. But I also want those who do join us to have a sustainable future in this field, and that’s ultimately what motivated me to write this article. Thank you for being part of the discussion!

  18. When we think about the big picture, it costs an art museum about $55 per visitor to run (According to the AAMD in 2016) and revenue per visitor (admissions, shop, and restaurant) is only $8. Given that and the fact that staffing makes up the largest part of museum expenses, the return on investment starts off negative and it is only through government and philanthropic support that they can even open the doors. So I think that negative ROI is the major driver in pushing wages down.

    1. Hi, Rich –

      It’s informative to see some more specific dollar metrics on this, thanks for adding them to the discussion. If we’re starting in a financial hole, it could be a big climb to get to positive ROI. If the museum you’re working in seems to always be tightening the belt, it might seem reasonable to believe that resources are stretched to the limit. That gets harder for workers to understand when they see money going out the door. Sometimes these expenditures might be anomalies, happening once in a blue moon thanks to a substantial contribution from a supportive donor for a special project or exhibit. But if money is repeatedly spent on external contractors, this can make the staff wonder – if they can barely afford to pay me then how can they afford to hire Design-Build Inc.? This question becomes more pointed when staff are laid off or have their hours cut at the same time as external contractors are retained.

      It would be interesting to know more about employee compensation in other non-profit sectors that have negative ROI and depend largely on private or governmental support. What does this scenario look like in non-profit hospitals, schools, or advocacy organizations, and how might it compare to that of museums?

  19. Interesting discussion about ROI. As a curator who pulls in big funding that my development director gets to claim, I decided to add it all up and present to my director. At an ROI of 1,040% over a ten year period (yes, I double checked the math, taking into consideration benefits, etc.), you would think I would get a raise. But my director just gives me excuses. Museums are in a time warp and have been using this to their advantage for far too long. Time for unionization?

  20. Thanks for the discussion. I have a MA in Anthropology and a Graduate Certificate of Museum Studies. Two years ago, I left the museums field for pretty much all of the above reasons. I have been flat out told by a supervisor that it would be better for me to get married and rely on a husband’s income so I could continue museum work (because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to financially support myself). Over the course of 5 years, I was never able to secure a full time position in museums, much less a full time position that paid enough for me to survive. My last museum position (part time) was continually cutting back my paltry hours until I finally only worked, on average, 8 hours per week (at $12/hour with no benefits, paid holidays, sick time, vacation, etc.).
    I now work as an anthropologist in the field of medicine at a university, making more than I have ever made in my 25 working years and I have excellent benefits working for the state. I have many more opportunities to move up as well. I felt betrayed by the museum field and it still makes me sad, although I know I made the right choice.

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