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Low Salaries? The Museum Field? Really?

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2017 salary survey released in June. Although it's collected data for a century, this was the first time it made the results public. And yes, it's a small survey--219 North American art museums--and, as the name implies, we're talking art, not history. But the good news is it's free. Of course there's always AAM's salary survey, which is a massive collaboration between 10 regional museum associations, and the most comprehensive of any museum salary survey. Of AAM's 1,000 respondents many come from history museums, however, it also includes staff from zoos, botanical gardens, and science museums. There's only one problem, and it's not with the survey itself, but if Facebook posts from emerging professionals are any indication, its cost sometimes makes access prohibitive. Just for fun we Googled "salaries museum jobs." We got 548,000 hits and a surprising amount of information from outside the field, information that ought to put the fear of god in many graduate student hearts. Payscale.com which claims its data was updated in June 2017 offers not only salary information, but hourly pay, and pay by institution. Admittedly it's a tiny group, and many of them are large urban or suburban organizations, but information is information. Clearly it's better to work for the Smithsonian at $26/hour then just about anybody else on Payscale's list. Not to mention, that despite the current administration's best efforts, the Smithsonian is here to stay. And yes, there are more than a few organizations on Payscale's list where choosing a career at Panera Bread or Target might offer a better starting salary, more predictable raises, and where there's no need for a graduate degree. So what should you do if you're new in the field and clobbered by the fact that maybe your grandma was right and you should have learned a trade like plumbing or gone to medical school? Well, pulling the covers over your head is an option, but here are some other thoughts.

  1. We do believe change starts from the bottom up so even though it's a small thing, start talking about the salary issue. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with your boss. Practice ways to say what needs to be said that aren't confrontational, but still get the point across. Your museum's leadership won't listen if they think they're liable to see you with a picket sign on the front steps.

  2. We are fierce advocates for higher wages, but it's important to love what you do. It sounds dopey, but honestly, no matter what you do--in or out of the museum field--if you don't love it, you're going to feel like your soul's being sucked out of your body a bit at a time. Change doesn't happen overnight except in fairy tales, so if a big salary means more to you than a life in museums, you'll never be happy. Try investment banking. Then you can be a museum board member. Just be honest with yourself.

  3. If you're in museum leadership, you need to be a fierce advocate for your staff. Your organization--and the field as a whole--is only as good as its staff. You want the best you can afford, and you want them to be happy, not covertly job hunting at their desks. Lobby your board for equitable salary and benefits. Take a page from academe and endow some of your key positions. If you lead a small organization, are there creative ways you can band together with local arts organizations and hire one person to do the same task at several places? Collaboration brings its own rewards, but that's another post.

  4. If you teach in a graduate program, we hope you make AAM's salary survey available to your students.

  5. Last, if you're new to the field, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Yes, big city salaries are often higher, but are they higher for entry level employees? And will your expenses be higher too? Do you want to work two jobs and share an apartment? The bottom line: know where you will get the best deal for you. And negotiate your offer. Again, know what you need: Is it more personal time off? Health benefits? Opportunities to travel? Or just cold hard cash? Whatever you choose, it's not a life sentence. Get as much experience as you can and move on. This is an issue that shouldn't go away. Let's all do what we can to make museum salaries equitable and livable. Joan Baldwin

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