“Institutions, Do Better,” a slogan by the new group Indebted Art Workers (courtesy of Indebted Art Workers)

With an annual salary of about $1.5 million (and about $720,000 in partial benefits), the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Peter Gelb earns more than 53 times the salary of a full-time sales associate under his supervision. And at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), director Glenn Lowry walks home with almost $2.3 million a year (plus a $6 million rent-free apartment), which is about 48 times the salary of an education assistant at the museum.

These figures are derived from a new spreadsheet released today, April 29, which highlights the income disparities in museums and other cultural institutions. The document provides tools that help workers to compare their salaries to those of their top managers or calculate what fraction of the institution’s endowment they constitute. The spreadsheet is the initiative of Indebted Cultural Workers, a group formed by New York University (NYU) graduate students and cultural workers.

Inspired by Art + Museum Transparency‘s widely circulated salary spreadsheet last year, Indebted Cultural Workers has crowdsourced information about the annual operating budget, the endowment, and the CEO/director salaries of about 20 major museums and art institutions around the country, as of their 2018 nonprofit 990 forms. Staffers are also called to add information about their workplaces in a Google form. The list of institutions includes the Brooklyn Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Art Institute in Chicago, among others.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York (Ajay Suresh/Flickr)

This data is contrasted with anonymous worker salaries drawn from Art + Museum Transparency’s spreadsheet as well as inputs from members of Indebted Cultural Workers, most of whom are either currently working or have worked in museums and other art spaces in the past.

The group invites art workers to add their salaries to the spreadsheet and use readymade formulas to calculate how it compares to the annual income of their top managers or see what percentage they make of the institution’s endowment.

“The work done so far is intended to be a jumping-off point,” representatives of Indebted Cultural Workers told Hyperallergic in an email. “We wanted to provide a substantive amount of ‘examples’ to help illustrate the pay discrepancy between employees most vulnerable (now more than ever) and CEOs/Directors who have failed to forego their salaries/have taken minimal pay cuts.”

Along with the spreadsheet, the group released a searing open letter against the leaders of NYU and other cultural institutions, accusing them of responding to the COVID-19 crisis by making choices that “serve their own interests, rather than the interests of our communities.”

“COVID-19 has reaffirmed how inadequate the art industry has always been — a microcosm that benefits the world’s hierarchies,” the letter reads. “Cultural leaders, who can make 48x more than their employees, now decide who among us is ‘essential’. Leaders use force majeure clauses to protect their institutions at the expense of staff, and their ability to receive essential payment to survive. This is not a world we should accept or a world we should be willing to return to.”

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, different student and faculty groups at NYU have been pleading for tuition reimbursement, the establishment of an emergency fund, extended access to healthcare, research support, and the protection of international students. But when students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts presented these demands to their Dean, Allyson Green, she replied with an email that rejected their demands together with a dance video starring herself.

“While we are uniquely frustrated with NYU and how it is responding to their students (ex: NYU COVID Coalition), we are also very aware that we are enrolled in these graduate programs because of the professional requirements imposed by the cultural sector,” the group told Hyperallergic. “We wanted to take this opportunity to consider how higher education and elite cultural institutions feed off one another, leaving their students and workers financially responsible.”

NYU has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Indebted Cultural Workers’ campaign joins similar calls on museum leaders to forgo their salaries and release endowment funds to avoid laying off staff.

So far, the Metropolitan Opera and MoMA are topping the ranking of income inequality in the spreadsheet, but other institutions don’t fare much better. For example, the Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong, earns more than $1.4 million a year (plus housing allowance), which equals 34 education coordinator salaries at the same institution, according to the group’s research. (An education coordinator’s salary represents 0.046% of the Guggenheim’s endowment.) The Whitney Museum’s Adam Weinberg receives a salary of over $1 million (as well as a housing allowance), making 27 times the salary of an education coordinator (0.011% of endowment) at his workplace.

“There is no solidarity, transparency, or care to be found hierarchically so we felt it was important to disseminate information laterally,” the students said in their email. “We hope the spreadsheet can help guide us and our peers as we consider the finances of the spaces we work (or have worked) in and help us all advocate for a more just future.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...