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Director Versus Staff: Questions of Pay Disparity

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=185818

Last week Robin Pogrebin wrote another museum article, this time on Museum Boss Salaries for The New York Times. It's a question that's been in the wind recently as critics decry the layoffs taking place at large urban museums. Many of those are low-paid, BIPOC, front-facing workers. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, according to Pogrebin, 43-percent of the workforce is nonwhite, of the 400 staff members cut since March almost half were people of color.

It should be noted, however, that of the 10 New York City museum directors, Pogrebin covered almost all reportedly took pay cuts to ease budget constraints as a result of COVID-19 closures. Nonetheless, the numbers are depressing: museum presidents making $1 million and up, while some staff are supposed to live within commuting distance of their Manhattan jobs on $35,000 a year.

But this story is layered. I don't quote my mother often, but she was fond of saying you can never understand anyone else's marriage or their checkbook. (She came from an age when checkbooks were still a thing.) You could extrapolate from there to the challenge of understanding an organization's financial decisions, particularly in a crisis, because so much isn't public, but the first question might be should museum directors take a salary cut during a financial crisis to ease layoffs and job cuts for remaining staff? Based on Pogrebin's list, we know a group of museums, their boards and directors, felt that was an important step. What we don't know is what difference it made. Where did The Metropolitan's Daniel Weiss 20-percent salary cut go? And how long do their salary cuts last? It was reported that Lisa Phillips, director the New Museum took a 30-percent cut for three months. The New Museum saw its staff unionize in 2019. Ms. Phillips pay cut wasn't enough to save Dana Kopel's job. A senior editor and publications coordinator, Kopel was laid off in June just as Ms. Phillips' pay cut expired.

These issues are complex, nuanced, and emotionally charged. It's not simply a matter of directors making too much. Nor is it a question of staff making too little. It is a complicated chemistry of the economics of each individual museum, its location, endowment, annual budget pre- and post- COVID, its number of staff, the director's compensation package, and the living wage in the community where its located. A second question might be how much is too much for a museum director's salary? With a follow-up question of should boards examine the ratio of a director's salary versus lowest paid FT staff member?

I've written about this issue before, but it is critical that boards, who set the director's compensation, understand that even though we live in a global world, and now, thanks to COVID, we may work remotely, we go home to one place in one city, town or region. Using the MIT Living Wage Calculator, I looked up the hourly living wage in five cities for one adult, no children. Here are the answers: St. Louis, $11.59; San Francisco, $20.82; Phoenix, $12.29; Cedar Rapids, IA, $10.83; Washington, D.C., $16.81. You don't need a PhD in economics to understand if you're moving to San Francisco, your living expenses will be vastly different than if you live in Iowa. But what if you lead an incredibly value-driven organization in San Francisco? What if your compensation agreement actually caps the director's salary in relation to the lowest paid FTE? And conversely, what if you lead a small, but very well-endowed organization in Iowa that rewards its leader very, very well and would never ask you to take a post-COVID pay cut?

Clearly, it's not an apples to apples comparison, but here are five things museum leaders and boards might think about:

  1. Remember that staff hired before your tenure may be prisoners of starting salaries based less on their competency and more on gender, race or both. Consider doing an equity audit of all staff salaries in order to eliminate gaps and inequities.

  2. Don't use the annual review as an arbitrary discipline tool, make sure annual reviews happen yearly, not when people get around to it, and that they include salary discussions.

  3. Do your homework. Know the living wage for your locale. Know comparable salaries. Everyone would like to make more money, but do you know whether your staff, particularly your hourly and new-to-the-field staff, is managing? Are they living with their parents because they want to or because they have to? Do they need second jobs?

  4. If you believe your staff is paid equitably, consider whether the ratio between the director's compensation and the lowest-paid FT staff member is something you want to tackle.

  5. If you raise the lowest salaries in an effort to close the gap between the bottom FTE and the director, consider codifying the decision making. That way, if the board hires someone in the future at a much-inflated salary, it will do so knowing other salaries have to move forward as well.

  6. And last, if you haven't already, think about whether you want to make an ED salary reduction part of any disaster planning.

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

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