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Study Finds Museum Salaries Are Rising Across the Board, Despite Huge Disparities

While salaries rose by 3% in 2016, museum directors are making about nine times what security guards do, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Elmgreen & Dragset, “Temptation” (2012) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Elmgreen & Dragset, “Temptation” (2012) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nearly one quarter of executive directors at museums in North America are either provided with a car or an allowance for one, but only 2.5% of non-executive museum staff enjoy the same perk. Meanwhile, just one in five non-executive museum workers receive some kind of subsidy for their mass transit expenses. These are among the findings of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) salary survey for 2017, released last week. While it suggests that salary growth across the museum field has outpaced national salary growth rates, it also shows the vast disparities in compensation between different sectors of the museum industry.

The study, AAMD’s 32nd annual tabulation of salary information, was conducted in partnership with the data consultancy Stax Inc. It is based on data from 2011 to 2016 provided by 219 of the group’s 242 member institutions. It shows some interesting overall data at the national level for the US, like that 35% of the participating museums have between 21 and 50 employees, while 27% have over 100, and just 3% have 10 or fewer. A related graph shows that nearly one third (32%) of responding institutions had an annual operation budget of between $2.5 and $5 million last year, while 21% had budgets of over $20 million — including six participating museums with budgets over $100 million — while just 1% of museums reported a budget of less than $1 million. Unsurprisingly, while smaller museums rely disproportionately on freelancers, large museums mostly employ full-time workers. Nearly half of the responding museums (42%) spend about half of their budgets (41–50%) on payroll.

In addition to the disparities in transportation allowances for executive directors and non-executives, the study provides details on all kinds of benefits enjoyed by (or withheld from) museum workers. For instance, a little over a quarter of museum workers were allowed to telecommute in 2016. Another benefit doled out in relatively equal measure to executive and non-executive workers is attendance at professional conferences: just over 90% of executives were offered this perk in 2016, and over 86% of non-executive workers were, too. Meanwhile, as of last year regular full-time museum workers could expect 14 days of paid time off in their first year at an institution, with about an extra day off for every year of employment. A full 59% of responding museums offer cafeteria plans.

However, the most interesting section of the report is the one that breaks down compensation by job title. There, we see that the mean annual salary for a North American museum director is $293,988, and that there are vast disparities between regions. Among the 10 Canadian and Mexican museums that provided data, directors earn a mean salary of $204,782 annually, while their best-paid colleagues in the US, those in the western states, earn $368,986. (The director’s assistant, however, earns just $57,424.) Deputy directors earn a mean annual salary of $173,572, while chief operation officers receive $172,872. The mean annual salary for a chief curator is $143,412, while directors of development earn $133,345. Chief conservators fare reasonably well, with a mean salary of $118,271, slightly surpassing the $111,941 earned by directors of external affairs. For 2011 to 2016, the salary growth rate was highest among museum workers for chief operating officers, who saw their salaries increase at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% — nearly twice the rate of growth for the whole field. Last year alone, the mean average salary of a museum worker went up 2.8%.

At the low end of the compensation spectrum, the increasingly high-profile job of social media manager (described by AAMD, tellingly, as “New Media Manager”) comes with a mean annual salary of $53,072. That’s still better than the typical curatorial assistant, who earns just $42,458, though a promotion to assistant curator could mean a bump to a mean annual salary of $55,999 — well ahead of their British colleagues. Meanwhile institutional photographers, charged with making high-quality images of artworks and exhibits, typically earn $61,230. The mean annual salary for a museum security guard is just under $34,000, though Canadian and Mexican museum security guards (based on the five institutions that provided data in this category) earn nearly $10,000 more than their US colleagues.

Though the study is an instructive breakdown of salaries and benefits at different levels of the museum workforce and in different regions, it would be interesting to see this data cross-referenced with recent studies about the lack of racial diversity and gender equality in different sectors of the industry. Still, for someone considering applying for arts administration jobs and torn between, say, a position in membership services and one in special events, the 2017 Salary Survey may make that decision much simpler.

Download the full Association of Art Museum Directors 2017 Salary Survey here.

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