An image of the beginning of the “Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019” list (screenshot by Zachary Small)

Transparency can be radical, especially in an industry as financially oblique as the art world. Last Friday, museum workers began contributing to a Google Spreadsheet documenting their place of employment, salary rates, and demographic details like race and gender. The data points offer crucial insight into the economic hierarchies inside some of the world’s most prestigious museums.

Entitled “Art/Museum Salary Transparency,” the spreadsheet has attracted more than 660 submissions after it was published just three days ago. The public push for disclosure adds to an insurgent movement of artists and museum workers who wish to address the economic inequalities manifest in cultural institutions. Tensions have increased in recent years as museums embark on multimillion-dollar expansion projects, arts staff unionize across the country, and activists scrutinize the ethics of institutional funding.

“Just be brave and add your information to the list,” suggests Michelle Millar Fisher, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She and her colleagues created the spreadsheet to increase solidarity among arts workers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet on their salaries alone. They were inspired by the Adjunct Project, Kimberly Drew’s keynote address at the 2019 American Alliance of Museums conference, and the ongoing POWarts salary survey.

“I’ve been an adjunct, a nanny, a cook — and lots of other things to support myself,” Fisher said during a phone call with Hyperallergic. The assistant curator has also previously written for this publication about parenting and labor in the art world. “All of us in the arts have had to take other jobs, and that will likely always be the case.”

Because the spreadsheet entries are published anonymously, Hyperallergic could not independently verify the accuracy of all the listed salary information; however, the information does match long-running perceptions about pay in the field. (New entries are being added through this Google Form.) Although positions like curatorial assistant are competitive and prestigious entry points into museum work, the pay is relatively low with starting salaries running between $30,000 and $50,000. By comparison, the select few who rise through the ranks to become chief curators at major museums can expect to make well within six figures.

“As the spreadsheet reveals, more and more institutions are relying on contingent labor — whether fixed-term project positions or fellowships,” explains one of Fisher’s collaborators who asked to remain anonymous because their museum position is non-permanent. “While the people in these roles are given equivalent responsibilities to those in permanent positions, they generally receive a lower salary, and their positions are by definition precarious.”

Many of these positions also require a substantial investment in education. Increasingly, museums expect their curators to have Master’s and PhD degrees with specializations in their fields before being considered for such a position. And even then, opportunities for advancement are minimum.

Maggie Stenz understands how difficult it is to thrive in the museum world. After earning her PhD in art history, she worked for a decade as a curatorial research associate at the Brooklyn Museum but later left the industry entirely because of low pay and difficulties with career advancement. “When I was looking to move up into a full-time curatorial position, there were only about 10 positions per year in the US in my area of expertise,” she explained to Hyperallergic over email, “and for each opening, there must have been dozens of qualified applicants.”

Those who contributed to the spreadsheet hope that transparency will lead to some sort of remuneration reform that may also contribute to further diversifying the field across socioeconomic categories. Even as museums are described as “cash-strapped” and expensive to run, their employees (and the public) are increasingly aware of how infeasible it is for people from low-income or middle-class backgrounds to work in such institutions without other independent sources of income.

For her part, Stenz decided to contribute to the salary transparency spreadsheet to undo some of the secrecy that plagues the industry. More recently, she has worked in state and city government, which must post salaries as a matter of public record. That means she doesn’t waste time going after a job she might love, but can’t live on. “I worked for so little for so long, I need to make more money now,” she said. “It’s a horrible job once the the realization dawns that your dream job will never materialize.”

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.

27 replies on “Museum Workers Share Their Salaries and Urge Industry-Wide Reform”

  1. Salaries must be raised to increase diversity in the museum field. Only those with private incomes can afford to work for these low salaries, closing the pipeline to those who can’t afford an unpaid internship and low pay.

    1. Yup…

      Museums are realizing that they have a diversity problem, and many are responding internally with DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) initiatives. But until the compensation structure is fixed, museum careers will remain sustainable for only a small subset of the population (which often tracks closely along racial and gender lines).

      1. “Diversity”, in this sense, is more than a race and gender issue (I hope) because low pay and exclusion affect a broad spectrum of people. Many people (of a range of race and genders) are excluded because they are rural, suffocating in student loan debt, and/or not able to receive extra financing for from their parents (and many other nuanced reasons). Rural people are consistently and often excluded from working in intellectual/art spaces, however these DEI initiatives often respond to “diversity problems” from a race/gender-based position and overly simplify people on all tracks.

  2. Y’all missed the “do your parents (still) finance your life” column….

  3. Hi vcragain, I did the same. Realizing at the age of 25 yo that my box of colors was not going to pay the bills, I went back and got an engineering degree; working as an engineer for 35 years until I retired several years ago. I now work my art full time. God willing, I’ll have another +20 years of working my art before I pass. This salary spread sheet re-enforces my belief that my decision years ago was one of best that I ever made…. There is no money in art except for a tiny select few; which is very sad. But, it is what it is.

    1. But this isn’t about making money as an artist. It’s about museum workers (who may well be artists also, but that isn’t the point.)

  4. My eldest son was a Pratt graduate in the 80’s & all gungho to love his arts career – that lasted 3 years when he realized that as much as he loved his work in a museum, he had basically no hope of ever earning enough to advance his life further, so he used his computer skills to change to a business career. He has been pretty successful and satisfied his artistic side pretty well via hobbies instead. You always bring your whole self to anything you do, so those art studies were not wasted, but my son is still a little wistful about his change of direction. That’s life, you do what works to survive in the rat race !

  5. I realized when I was at college in fine arts that none of my peers had plans, unless it was get an MFA. I realized that my profs didn’t have much to offer in terms of marketing myself as an artist. Then I also realized when I went to more and more gallery openings and talking to artists that most had 2nd jobs or were living near poverty that it was time to switch my major. I wound up in industrial design and still have plenty of time to make artwork and participate in the arts scene and it sure is nice to do it without having to worry as much.

  6. I see positions advertised all the time. My field is museum education. Let that registered Museum+Education= two field where salaries are ridiculously low and work is piling up while requiring vast amounts of education.
    Museums offer position that require state certification has a teacher, and programming experience, and degrees… And they don’t even offer standard teacher salaries. That is shameful.

    1. Might also wanna examine the education-industrial-complex that “require” education to be successful… but what do I know… I don’t live in NYC (too poor)…

      1. You don’t seem to know much…about NY.
        Most people here in the arts come from all over the country and the world. They struggle to be here to contribute to the concentration of creative energy. NY is not the only such place.
        It used to be that you could support yourself in NY with about three days of employment. Restaurant work, construction, cabs, etc. That is no longer possible. Not for a long time.
        The price of real estate is to blame.
        Art education, at inflated prices, is another factor.
        Why anyone would spend 100s of thousands of dollars to teach art or to be an artist is beyond me. Most artists work at it despite being “non-profit”.
        I wouldn’t knock NY just because you aren’t here.
        Maybe you’re just bored?

        1. I am bored, tired, “busy”, and *just* a millennial (never satisfied). Thanks for the perspective! Now if we could just help some of these coastals to not conflate us pesky midwesterners… maybe next time… yawn…

  7. Many of these salaries are completely unreasonable. Why the museum with the most expensive entrance (Guggenheim) pays so little to its employees? Hello??

  8. Security and maintenance staff salaries don’t count..apparently (could it be because they are largely POC??)

    1. That depends which museums you are talking about… in the corn-belt, these staff members are “largely” mixed (white, poc, cis, gnc, queer, str8, etc)… but this assumes that y’all believe there is art (anything??) outside of NYC…

        1. Check, check, and check! Us rural folx got it all — you are always welcome!

    2. it’s a self-populated spreadsheet.. when staff in those areas start contributing, you’ll see the data.

  9. This quote goes a long way toward explaining the salary levels:

    “When I was looking to move up into a full-time curatorial position, there were only about 10 positions per year in the US in my area of expertise,” she explained to Hyperallergic over email, “and for each opening, there must have been dozens of qualified applicants.”

  10. I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary on this article that falls into the “well, of course – there’s no money in art, what did you expect?” category, often with stories of changing to a STEM career for better earning potential. It’s worth noting that many museum professionals have science degrees (especially those working in natural history museums), and unfortunately the issues of salary equity and sustainability affect them as well.

  11. If you think these US figures are bad, equivalent UK salaries are significantly worse (albeit education investment is cheaper)

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