Gustave Courbet’s “Stone Breakers” holding museum protest signs (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

On November 1, New York City’s salary transparency law went into effect, finally illuminating the murky realm of compensation across industries. Workplaces with four or more employees must now disclose pay in their job postings “in good faith,” and current listings show that most employers appear to be complying, even in the notoriously opaque art world.

In some cases, the new law has served to expose just how meager some salaries in the cultural sectors remain. As museum workforces across the country continue to unionize, a popular rallying cry has emerged among workers: “You can’t eat prestige.” Hyperallergic took a deep dive into NYC’s art job postings, and it appears that some employers are still asking their workers to do just that.

Below are a few of the most egregious postings we saw at galleries, museums, and auction houses, many requiring advanced degrees and offering salaries far below New York City’s living wage.

Rhea Nayyar contributed reporting.

Whitney Museum of American Art

At the Whitney in Manhattan’s pricey Chelsea neighborhood, a posting for a security officer offers $19.89 an hour and requires at least two years of experience. A visitor and member assistant role is listed at $17 an hour and asks for a year of customer-facing work experience.

Wages for such roles at the Whitney and elsewhere raise questions about the feasibility of working in Manhattan, where rents reached a record high this year. The average one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is priced at $4,278, but even a studio is $3,145. It looks like these workers will need to live deep in another borough, with a handful of roommates and a potentially long commute.

Brooklyn Museum

At the Brooklyn Museum, where workers are negotiating their first contract after unionizing in January, a development assistant — a role tasked with supporting the museum’s multimillion-dollar fundraising efforts — will make only $45,000 a year, coming in more than $7,000 short of New York City’s living wage of $52,873 for a person without children, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Gagosian Gallery

Front Desk Associate | Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree, one year of experience | $23 an hour

Outside of the museum world, a front desk associate at Gagosian Gallery should not only have at least a Bachelor’s degree in art history, but can also expect to make only $45,000 a year. Good luck paying back those student loans.

Sperone Westwater

Sales Assistant | Bachelor’s degree | $50,000–75,000 a year

Some companies are “complying” with the new salary transparency law by posting compensation in the form of absurd ranges — Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, for example, found media roles with pay ranges of nearly $100,000. At Sperone Westwater, a contemporary art gallery in SoHo, a sales assistant can expect to make somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 — a 50% jump that takes the employee from below the living wage to significantly above it.

The Shed

Visual Arts Handler | Bachelor’s degree or 3 years of experience | No salary posted

Candidates for the arts handler job at the Shed, the multidisciplinary center in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, will not only apply without knowing the position’s salary, but will need to suggest their own compensation range. As of November 10, the position description on the institution’s website advised applicants to “provide salary requirements with your application.”

Christie’s

Business Development Coordinator | Bachelor’s degree, two to three years of experience | $45–50,000 a year

Cataloguer | Bachelor’s degree, Master’s preferred, two years of experience | $47–52,000 a year

Temporary United States Tax Administrator | Bachelor’s degree, one year of experience | $20–25 an hour

Temporary Art Handler | $20–25 an hour

Auction houses offered some of the lowest wages in the listings Hyperallergic surveyed. Many jobs are temporary or seasonal, which could exclude those employees from benefits like health insurance under the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Christie’s raked in $7.1 billion in sales last year — and yesterday sold $1.5 billion worth of art in the most expensive auction in its history — but a business development coordinator in Trusts, Estates & Appraisals will make only $45–50,000 a year. While that salary is already below New York City’s living wage as calculated by MIT, it comes with more requirements than entry-level positions: two to three years of work experience on top of a preferred Bachelor’s degree. A cataloguer in the decorative arts department will also make less than the living wage at only $47–52,000 a year, with a minimum of two years of paid experience in the arts and a Bachelor’s degree in the fine or decorative art category (or equivalent work experience), but a Master’s degree is preferred. 

The auction house is also advertising several temporary positions. A United States tax administrator (Bachelor’s degree and a year of work experience required) will make $20–25 an hour, and a temporary art handler will make $25 an hour, inching close to the $25.42 living wage but especially notable due to Christie’s attempt last month to aestheticize the work of art handlers with a tasteless sweatshirt.

Sotheby’s

Director of Marketing and Strategy | 10 years of experience | $135–210,000 a year

Temporary Post Sale Coordinator | 3–5 years of experience | $22–26 an hour

Property handler | $24.50 an hour

At Sotheby’s, wages were similarly low and seasonal, but some offered dubious ranges, too: The director of marketing and strategy for the Luxury Department can expect to make anywhere between $135,000 to $210,000 a year — a gap that could pay the annual salary of its lowest-paid workers two times over. A property handler will make $24.50 an hour, below the $25.42 living wage, but in line with the union contract. The auction house pulled in $7.3 billion in sales in 2021.

Phillips

Phillips, the smaller of the power player auction house trifecta, is also advertising unlivable wages. An accounting assistant will earn $18.27 to $20.19 per hour, a part-time seasonal operations assistant (with three years of experience in an “auction house, internationally recognized gallery or museum”!) will make a meager $20 to $23 per hour, and a spring intern in the 20th century and contemporary art department will make only $15 dollars an hour, the minimum wage in New York City. That’s an improvement from the extremely low bar set by unpaid internships, which have sparked conversation in past years surrounding their role in furthering diversity and inclusion disparities at art institutions. While Phillips is smaller than Sotheby’s and Christie’s, it still made $1.2 billion in sales in 2021, the most successful year in its history.

School of Visual Arts

One of the lowest wages we found was $38,200 for an associate in mail processing and office services at the School of Visual Arts, but as of November 10, the institution did not disclose salary for several of its open positions.

New York joins a host of other states with similar salary transparency laws, and for the art world, it’s been a long time coming. Over the summer, the Network of Emerging Museum Professionals created a database that tracks which job boards post compensation, and a month later, the American Alliance of Museums announced it would require pay transparency on their job board effective November 15. While employers have changed their listing to comply with the new law, many of their salaries have remained disappointing.

The Latest

Avatar photo

Elaine Velie

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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *