Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday. Museums and non-profits will be asking millions of people to share their money with us. But, they often say charity begins at home. Are we giving our staff the wage they deserve?
The Current Situation
I have spoken to literally hundreds of museum professionals this year. This gives me a look at the hottest topics in the field. Salary has been the most common topic I have heard. Junior staff members see their peers making vastly more in other sectors. Colleagues are learning that peers in other parts of their organizations are making more for the same job, and they are unhappy. Mid-career professionals are looking around for other jobs that pay better.
Museum professionals were never high paid, so is the current situation any different than at other times? Previously, they might have felt trapped in their jobs by their professional experience. Technology has transformed museum work, so many museum professionals now find themselves in possession of transferable skills. With more job options, museum professionals can be more critical about workload and salary.
An increase in networking opportunities has also made museum professionals less isolated. In the past, a registrar might be the only one in her institution, so she had no peers to use as a salary benchmarking tool. Conferences, Facebook groups, and Twitter all serve as the chance to learn about salary issues in the field and place your own salary in perspective. We now know what our friends are making.
In past decades, museum professionals might have come to this field via many routes. Retired teachers, donor’s wives, and volunteers turned employees all found themselves as valued members of the staff. These museum professionals had lower salaries than if they had worked in other fields, but they had other benefits like pensions or no fear of layoffs. These days, a museum professional, particularly in any collections-based field, is likely to have a master’s degree and the accompanying shadow of student loans. These newer museum professionals don’t come to the field with the benefit of a husband’s salary. This is their career, and they know that they aren’t getting paid well.
The Challenges for Managers
Hiring managers might feel their hands are tied. Their supervisors or boards expect big returns. Museum budgets are tight. The expectations of exemplary action are high. Plus, hundreds of people seem to want to work there. The market has a wealth of available hires fresh from Graduate School. Even a part-time job piques the interest of hundreds of amply-qualified applicants. When demand exceeds need, the possible value of each hire decreases. The organization has all the power to get what they want for as little as possible.
Museums replicate some elements of corporate America, giving their CEO’s higher salaries. But, they have chosen to ignore others. Lower level staff generally doesn’t have any perks that keep them there. Flex time, infinite vacation, and profit-sharing don’t generally exist in museums. Instead, museum staff members remain in place due to their drives and hopes. There is the dream that their penury will have a long-term payoff when they get to the top, or their martyrdom is worth being part of this amazing mission. For others, there is no job mobility. The majority of cities in America don’t have enough museums for professionals to move from museum job to museum job without moving. In other words, museum executives get the benefit of corporate salaries while leading a group of people who might feel trapped by their ideals.
But, stop, right there. This type of market is inherently unethical. Sure, there are many people dying for those jobs. Sure, you could hire them at the lowest rate. Sure, you need to make the board’s expectations happen. Taking advantage of staff is against the very ethos of museums. These institutions are supposed to be about preservation. If we can’t even preserve our staff at a living wage, why should people trust us with their collections or money?
Managers, therefore, have a great deal of power in improving the salary situation. They set salaries, but they also set expectations. They can decide to do less because they don’t have enough money for a living wage. They can also decide to benchmark against similar jobs in the region, rather than against the national museum salary benchmarks. (The national museum salary benchmarks have the current faulty system baked in.) Now, these managers can’t do this alone. But, they are most likely going to be a force in starting change. Real change requires that executives, boards, and trustees rethink the value of labor.
Why Make Change?
Money is the greatest motivator of change. There is a real cost to the low salaries in the field. When people leave the field, they take with them knowledge and training. Paying low up front means we as a field are losing money in the long run. Don’t believe this? Calculate the cost of training part-time front of house staff over five years at your institution. What could you have done with time and money instead? Paid them more, kept them, and found much more useful things to do with your time, I would guess.
Museums are places for visitors. When we underpay our staff, we are potentially putting our visitors in contact with unhappy employees. Now, as an old-time Front of House staff member, I would guess that most museum professionals mask their unhappiness from visitors. But, we are playing Russian roulette on this one. Or, we are profiting off the professionalism of our staff, when we aren’t professional enough to pay them a living wage.
Staff is our means of production. They are the way that we can increase attendance and visitor engagement. Increasing salaries to offer a living wage, or even better, competitive advantage increases your staff happiness which increases productivity. Happy staff equals happy visitors which equals happy donors/ foundations.
Diversity, equity, access, and inclusion are important to our field. Without change at the staff level, our field will not be able to expand audiences effectively. Why? Well, we suffer from siloed thinking thanks to our credentialing practices. When we add new staff from different backgrounds, we expand the ways we approach the work we do. But, if you have ever wondered, but where can I get those “diverse” candidates my board wants me to hire, step back. Instead, think what am I doing to turn off diverse candidates. Put salary at the top of that list. If, for example, you are looking for socio-economic diversity, your low salaries are working against you. Most new museum professionals come from higher socioeconomic classes because they are the only people who can work for free. It is very hard to get a museum job without internship experience on your resume. In other words, the system is set up to expect free labor to then get a low-paying wage. This is a system predicated on outside income, often thanks to Mom and Dad.
Finally, and most importantly, the low salaries, particularly at the lowest levels are just wrong. I have spoken to hundreds of young people who believe in the museum. They could be the leaders of tomorrow, our future directors and executives. They could be the next hope for our field. These young people believe in the work. They love our institutions. We return that love with abuse in the form of long hours, low salaries, and little flexibility. We have these people’s hopes, dreams, and even souls in our hands. Don’t they deserve more?
This post was written after an in-depth conversation with my friend, Kelly Cannon. She is passionate and articulate about how salary impacts our field. She deserves credit for many of the ideas underlying the post.
Kelly and I met as part of the MCN mentorship program. This program connects newer museum professionals with more seasoned ones to help both grow professionally and personally. It is a worthy program for people at any point in their career. Consider joining.
As she said, this post is not an intellectual exercise. It’s a rallying cry for people at all levels of the field to think about how salary impacts our work and our field. Change doesn’t happen by accident.
I had a question about this line from Heidi Quicksilver: “If we can’t even preserve our staff at a living wage, why should people trust us with their collections or money?” To clarify: