Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art rallying for a fair union contract earlier this year. (photo by and courtesy Tim Tiebout)

As a new class of graduating college students gears up to enter the job market, a fresh cohort of art lovers will apply to fill the estimated 4,900 museum job openings in the United States.

But snagging one of those coveted jobs is notoriously competitive, and the work itself is infamously underpaid. A visitors services associate, a common entry-level position in museums, earns a national average of $31,600 a year. In the Mid-Atlantic region that includes New York City, the annual pay for a visitor services associate is only $200 higher than the country’s average, and over $20,000 less than New York’s $52,863 living wage. Navigating salary negotiations is a daunting feat made more challenging by employers’ policies on pay transparency: Only 12% of United States job listings disclose salary information.

Now, a new crowdsourced project by the advocacy group National Emerging Museum Professionals Network (NEMPN) shows exactly which museum job boards post salaries in their listings. The project, called the Equity in Pay + Pay Transparency Accountability Tracker, also lists whether or not popular websites that advertise museum openings post unpaid internships (another factor that contributes to hiring inequality).

The new database shows that some of the museum world’s most important organizations, like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Cultural Resources Association, already require salaries to be posted. Others do not, including the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) (although AAM does urge employers to “be transparent about salary” and “not ask for salary history” in an Equitable Hiring Practices section of its website).

Screenshot of the Equity in Pay + Pay Transparency Accountability Tracker

“The AAM accredits institutions, provides educational trainings, and works to be seen as a leader in the cultural field,” said Sarah Marsom, who began advocating for job board salary transparency in 2020 and brought her project to NEMPN. “They need to maintain standards that not only comply with state laws, but lead the shift toward more equitable workplaces. They have the power to set standards that will have positive impacts on workers.”

An NEMPN petition started two months ago asking AAM to #ShowTheSalary has received over 600 signatures.

“In terms of salary transparency, knowing what the pay grade or salary level is before you apply for a job ensures that you know that you can afford to pursue that career (or agitate for raising wages to a fair level),” Michelle Millar Fisher, curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, told Hyperallergic. In 2019, Millar started the Art/Museum Salary Transparency database, a spreadsheet that attracted thousands of voluntary salary disclosures from museum professionals.

“[Salary transparency] also encourages competitive wages in a field that is notorious for underpaying overqualified people, and it allows people to negotiate individually and collectively for salaries that meet the cost of living,” Millar Fisher added.

And time and time again, data has shown that workers secure higher wages when companies post salaries. Numerous studies have also shown that sharing salary information is incredibly effective in shrinking the gender pay gap.

“Museums are sustained by the passion and love of the work by museum workers, but the compensation for most of us just doesn’t match that level of passion nor does it match the amount of work that museum workers, especially emerging museum professionals, are asked to do in their roles,” NEMPN Co-President Sierra Van Ryck deGroot and Regional Director Jesse Dutton-Kenny told Hyperallergic.

Workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art protesting low wages this spring (photo Jasmine Liu/Hyperallergic)

But alongside advocacy efforts directed at individual organizations, legislative initiatives nationwide have begun to take effect. In the last few years, Washington and Colorado have passed laws requiring employers to disclose pay information in job listings, and California’s state legislature is considering a similar measure.

In New York City, one such piece of legislation — the Salary Transparency Law — will go into effect November 1, requiring employers to list pay in their job postings. The law applies to organizations with over four employees, which employ over 90% of the city’s workers even though they represent only a third of the city’s companies.

The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) job board is one of the largest available to NYC cultural workers, with almost 500 listings at the time of publication. The organization does not yet require employers to list salaries but has witnessed a steady rise in salary disclosures, perhaps in anticipation of the enactment of the city’s new law. Between April and June of this year, 49% of listings included an entry in the salary field, NYFA’s Director of Sales and Communications Melanie Martin told Hyperallergic.

By the end of 2022, NEMPN’s job board tracker will be largely obsolete for NYC museum job seekers, but the organization’s salary tracker, which compiles the pay of current employees, will remain a useful tool for workers across the sector. DeGroot and Dutton-Kenny said that their salary-sharing database is a continuation of the work of Millar Fisher, which successfully exposed the prevalence of low wages for titularly prestigious positions and other roles.

NEMPN’s database currently includes a little over 100 entries, but deGroot and Dutton-Kenny hope it will continue to grow.

Museum wages have been in the spotlight in recent years. Last year, an Association of Art Museum Directors survey showed rampant pay inequality between museums’ top and bottom income earners. A particularly jarring case of pay disparity came to light last December, when the Guggenheim Museum’s soon-to-be former director, Richard Armstrong, took home $1.5 million in total compensation while 11% of staff was cut due to the pandemic.

After the pandemic’s devastating effects, a February AAM report showed that 47% of American museums are trying to increase staff after many furloughed or laid off employees. Even if wages remain low, come November, New York applicants will at least know what to expect.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.