“Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom” mural at the United Electrical Workers building in Chicago, Illinois (photo by and courtesy of Julia Muhsen)

Salary transparency isn’t always sexy. But it’s of fundamental importance to achieving greater equity in arts institutions. Now that the pay and benefits of current art and museum employees are online and easily accessible on the Salary Transparency Spreadsheet — and the cause and effects of wage suppression have been underlined by the Unpaid Internship Spreadsheet — there’s a logical next step:

All cultural sector organizations must post salary ranges and benefit packages when recruiting new hires and end the practice of demanding salary expectations and salary histories from applicants. 

This practice is free to implement; it’s a measure that helps to push forward non-profit organizations’ missions to be transparent, accessible, and inclusive without costing a dime. In the dramatically shifting landscape of art and museum fields today, we see this as one of the critical steps in moving us toward equity, much like abolishing unpaid internships. Let us explain why.

It is currently illegal in 17 states to ask a prospective employee for their salary history, and for good reason (see, for example, New York City’s law that highlights the link between inquiring about salary histories and deleterious effects on applicant pool diversity). If a potential employer knows how much you made at your last job, they can decide how much you’re worth in their employ, regardless of other factors — like experience and a living wage — that should play a much more important role. They can also choose to pay peers at the same institution different wages for the same work. (This is why peer-to-peer salary transparency is such a powerful tool of collegiality.) Prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about their salary history will play a crucial role in the ongoing work of breaking the cycle of women and minorities being historically underpaid in comparison to their white male counterparts. 

Studies on wage compensation have for years proven that women and minority candidates who advocate for themselves and their compensation at any stage in a job application process are viewed as aggressive. Their white male counterparts are not. We’ve said this ad nauseam, but it bears repeating: if art and museum organizations wish to champion diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, they must look not just at their gallery and education programs but to their staff, too. To do this, they must put in place mechanisms that break the paradigm these studies describe. Removing requests for salary histories is one step. 

The other crucial side of this coin is to post the salary range or even better, the exact salary and benefits with a job posting so that applicants can decide from the outset whether they can afford to apply for a position. This also saves time for employers: it means that they waste far less time sifting through the pile of applicants who rush to apply for open positions in a field where demand for jobs far outstrips the supply. When (as is usually the case for arts jobs) an employer does not share salary at the start of a job application process and withholds it in favor of asking for “salary expectations,” the interview and selection of candidates occurs in a process that is deeply asymmetrical. 

Our compatriots at the UK-based museum watchdog group Fair Museum Jobs have been campaigning for salary disclosure in museum job postings for more than a year, with impressive success. We encourage you to become familiar with their resources if you haven’t already taken a look. On their website, they enumerate eight detrimental effects of salary non-disclosure (or salary “cloaking,” which acknowledges the deliberate action on the part of the employer), all of which we heartily endorse. You’ll notice they start from the premise that “most job adverts in the UK museum sector declare the position’s salary” and work to convince those remaining outliers of the irregularity of their behavior. As US-based arts and museum workers and job applicants, we find ourselves in a radically different situation. Museum and arts job postings that declare the position’s salary, or even a salary range, are rare exceptions. Most employers only do so because they are government positions and salary disclosure in the job description is mandated, or because a sympathetic director or hiring manager chooses to. These few exceptions, while laudable, cannot alone address the systemic inequities of our industry. 

The same goes for the aggregated information in salary surveys conducted by industry groups like the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). As applicants, we know from experience that these resources have limited use in estimating salary ranges for specific positions and institutions where pay scales vary dramatically, ignore galleries and other arts nonprofits, and in the case of AAM, are not freely available, compounding the existing inequities in museums’ recruitment. In any case, these surveys place the onus on the individual applicant when the responsibility for equitable and fair hiring lies with the recruiters claiming to be its champions.

This situation could be better — a lot better. This is why we are working to convince every US arts organization and museum to embrace salary disclosure on their job postings. We need to band together as a field of colleagues to make this happen and to help each other in the short and long terms. Many of you are already advocating for salary transparency in your own workplaces and through petitions and emails to professional groups like the American Alliance of Museums. We need to make AAM, and the other industry job boards like those hosted by New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), College Art Association, and the Association of Art Museum Curators cognizant of their complicity in this practice, and celebrate them when they finally say no to job submissions lacking salary information. We need leadership from AAMD on this issue; directors of organizations can set the tone from the top. And we ask you as museum workers applying to these jobs to continue sending us submissions of places that are getting it right — and the ones getting it so, so wrong. We’ve been highlighting both on our Twitter account, @AMTransparency. Scroll back for the conversation with a NYC cultural organization that was advertising for an unpaid, year-long part-time volunteer role that required a PhD and fluency in three languages (when we inquired about the position, the institution in question took down their entire volunteer page), to the highlights and low points from NYFA’s popular job page, where some internships laudably post their above-minimum-wage salaries clearly, while others offer lunch or travel stipend only (organizations doing this, do you think that your interns have the option of choosing whether to eat or commute to work?)

We believe cloaking salaries is a central obstacle to equity in our field and will explore any and every avenue to salary transparency. We’re in this conversation for the long haul. For the most resistant organizations, unionization will ultimately be the tool for achieving salary transparency. Union negotiations can establish standardized job titles and salary ranges and requirements for job advertising and internal promotion processes. We encourage anyone in a resistant organization to reach out to existing museum unions — like the Museum of Modern Art or New Museum in New York — or to us for more information about how the unionization process might work.  

And for employers willing to engage with (or already practicing) the two-pronged approach that we describe above — transparency of banning salary history requests and posting salaries alongside job descriptions — we applaud your example. These are concrete steps toward establishing the equity our institutions say they are working to create, and ensuring the relevance and continuance of the cultural sector for generations of visitors and workers to come. 

Art + Museum Transparency is a worker activist group operating since May 2019. A collective of art and museum workers, they manage two crowdsourced spreadsheets for salary and internship transparency,...