Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Salary Conundrum

Well, now that the article in Museums came out this month and people are asking me about this blog, I have decided that I better get my butt back in gear and start contributing.

So, I just got back from AAM in Denver. Overall I would deem the conference OK. There were a few memorable sessions, but one that sticks in my mind that seems particularly relevant to young or emerging professionals was a session called "The Salary Conundrum." In it, the four panelists and one moderator spoke about--naturally--the fact that museum professionals are among the highest trained professionals and the lowest paid. Some of the facts that were cited were some dismal accounts from professionals in New York who were paid the meager salary of $23,000/annually (in Manhattan!). Needless to say, people were graduating from school, getting jobs, and dropping out of the profession like flies because they were simply not able to survive on such paltry earnings.

Some of the solutions that were offered were 1.) lobby AAM to shed further light on this issue and cajole museum directors and board members to take some action toward equity in pay; 2.) encourage greater salary research by region; 3.) start encouraging/forcing museums to disclose salary ranges for job opportunities; 4.) unionize.

I was also mildly castigated for daring to question whether or not university museum studies programs should carry some of the culpability for the low pay in museums--especially for educators and collections managers. At the session I learned that there are an upwards of 3000 museum studies programs in the United States turning out thousands of graduates each year. It seems, in my opinion, that museum studies programs have an obligation to inform their students about the lack of compensation in the field and to prepare people for how to survive after graduation. Are all of these programs necessary? Are they only fueling the problem by increasing the pool of cash-desperate grads?

So, I am interested in hearing from you. Do any of the above courses of action seem viable? Do museum studies programs share some of the blame for flooding the market with over-qualified, under-paid, and highly indebted new professionals? Do you feel you are being paid fairly? And if not, what recourse do you have?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I was at AAM last week too, but didn't go to any EMP type stuff.

I've been working in museums for about 7 years now, and just started graduate study last fall. The program I am in is brutally honest - even before you apply - about the state of salaries in our profession. We all are drilled into us the idea that we'll never drive new farraris, and salary can't be the sole reason to go into what we do.

I don't know other museum studies programs, but feel that the one I am in doesn't set us up for a dandy world where we are all paid a fair wage. That we do what we do because we love it. (Forgive me if I sound Pollyanna.)

Do people really get into a field without researching what the problems are first? That was my grandmother's biggest complaint when I went from engineering to art history. "You can't feed your family on that" were her exact words, I think.

Liz said...

I am also a current student in a museum studies program, as well as a part-time staff member at the university's natural history museum. I have no illusions about what I'm getting myself into.

The director of our Master's program teaches the Introduction to Museology course that every student has to take and on the first day of the course he brings in the latest AAMD report on salaries in the field. He points out very clearly that we won't be making money and he gives us the proof, broken down by specialization and field.

My colleagues at the natural history museum are also very forthright about the salary situation. In fact, I recently watched the effects of some major budget cuts, including layoffs.

I think many students in museum studies programs are aware of the realities and still make the choice to enter the field. Maybe this isn't something to bemoan, but rather something to praise, that so many emerging professionals are still choosing to enter the work force and they are entering with their eyes wide open.

So, I believe the fault lies with the museum field itself, not the academic programs preparing students. Something does need to be done, but what that is, I can't say. Regardless, its going to have to start from the bottom up because those at the top are not going to be as concerned about what they are earning as those who are just starting out. We can't expect directors and trustees to just wake up and decide to start paying us more. We have to ask for it.

Liz said...

I am currently a year out of grad school (Museum Studies) and am, thankfully, gainfully employed. I was a little worried there for a while after graduation...

My program mentioned it but didn't go into as much detail of this salary issue as they could have. I went into grad school knowing much more than others in my class, as I'd been working in museums for several years, but I think a few got a rude awakening after graduation.

I wholeheartedly agree with encouraging/forcing museums to disclose salary ranges for open positions. I applied for one very promising job that I wanted badly with a very well respected institution, only to find out that they paid less than what I made in grad school as an intern! While I wanted the job, I also wanted to eat.

Right now, I make a very decent salary for a newly graduated professional and know that I'm lucky. That said, I believe museums need to make a concentrated effort to do something about this problem. We stand to lose many promising professionals due to this lack of competitive (or even just livable) salaries.

Does this effort need to come from AAM, a representative of many of the museums here? Does this need to be a 'grassroots' effort? I'm not sure, but now that this issue is a bit more 'out there', I'm interested to see what happens.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post YMP! As an intern at one of the most prestigious museums in the Northeast and an individual who wants to pursue a career in this field, compensation has been a growing concern of mine.

When the curatorial Assistant in my department has to speak to youngsters like myself, he consistently discourages them from entering the industry because of the ridiculously LOW WAGES! And while it is in some ways shameful, he is doing exactly what he needs to do. Because NO ONE should enter this field without some knowledge of how their well-being will affected. NO ONE should enter this field with their sights set on becoming a curator without knowing that:

despite the 5-7 years of schooling that is required in some cases to be a competitive candidate, you are NOT financially compensated.

But, what I do not see him doing is taking steps to change this. And believe me, this madness has got to change! An MBA can walk out of B-School into a six figure salary. A 3rd year law student can also easily graduate and move-on to a track that produce millions in 10 years. Which leaves one wondering:

WHY? my case, this question is littered with expletives.

I agree with the 2nd post Liz when she said "the fault lies with the museum field itself." (Museums Studies programs are doing just fine) Surely, if development departments can harass donors for gifts of art or an entirely new wing, they can ask for some money to create an endowment that will go towards greater rewards for the people who work so hard to provide the experiences they treasure so much. In fact, there are probably a million and one ways museums can go about increasing their revenues. The thing that we as young professionals need to worry about is how we are going to get the deputy directors and directors of the world to listen to and act upon our concerns.

The previous post from Liz asked some very pointed questions when she inquired, "Does this effort need to come from AAM, a representative of many of the museums here? Does this need to be a 'grassroots' effort?" And I believe that the answer is it needs to be BOTH. But, in the end, the message MUST BE THE SAME: The current levels of compensation are entirely unacceptable. As individuals, in our private lives and quests to find jobs, we must DEMAND more. And as collective groups, such as: AAM professionals, we must DEMAND more. In other words, we must hit human resources departments and managers/directors all over the country with the same message: I AM WORTH MORE! MY SKILLS ARE WORTH MORE! MY BACKGROUND IS WORTH MORE! AND I’LL BE DAMNED IF I ACCEPT ANYTHING LESS.

Museum professionals, don’t be fooled, the revolution must first start on the inside, and you have got to be the change you wish to see in the work-place.

What does this mean? On an individual level, you have got to be prepared for:

a) defending your qualifications and skill sets

b) convincing hiring managers and whomever you interview with that you are the candidate for the position

c) negotiation. There is SO MUCH LITERATURE on this fine art. Stop actin’ crazy! Get some and read about it.

d) Sacrifice. This means you have got to be flexible. If you’re in graduate school, you need to start investing your money. In this day and age, there is NO job security, so you must have a net to catch you when you fall (i.e. other sources of CASH) There’s literature on that too.

As I said before though, we must also work on a collective level and SUPPORT EACH OTHER. Yes, I know, we are competing with each other too, but if we are to really DO THIS THING CALLED CHANGE we have got to get together and network a little bit. That means we need to meet each other, understand the needs of our colleagues and talk about what actions we can take collectively. Maybe this means creating more seminars at these conferences that call more attention to the problem. Another step can be taking those seminars home and having them in different regions. In any case, the discussion must include directors and finance department people. And yes, Unionizing is an excellent idea. If health workers can do it, why can’t we?

I know that when I graduate with my Phd in art history in 6 years, I will not settle for some piti-ful $60,000 paycheck. And if I do, trust me, I will be starting my own business on the side! The point is though, if we continue to accept the current situation, it will remain that way. And yes, I understand that our industry is about more than profits and losses. We are a field that is critically examining everything under the sun (and above) And no, we’re not cash cows. But, people should be compensated for everything that they bring the table and use: This means their education, time, effort etc etc. Doctors are in a profession just as if not more noble than us…and let me tell you folks (if you don’t already know): dermatologists, surgeons, optometrists…they GET PAID. WELL.

We don’t HAVE TO scrape by just because we work in museums. And don’t for a second think that you have no recourse. Think about this…museums get funding from: The government (state, city and federal), private high net worth/filthy rich individuals, huge corporations, charitable foundations AND regular visitors. And you mean to tell me that they can’t afford to pay people more!?!???!? They can’t afford to pay their interns!??!?! Yeh right.

If you’re ready to get the revolution started, want to brainstorm and just chat about the subject, please contact me at

Anonymous said...

I was at that AAM session too, and I left it rather dispirited, since no one seemed willing to either finger anything particular as the cause of our poor salaries or provide real solutions. AAM could send out a directive saying that entry and mid-level positions should be fairly compensated, but nothing will happen.

My degree is in history, not museum studies, but I think that museum studies programs are graduating students at an irresponsible rate for our field.

The real problem, in my opinion, is structural, particularly for history museums: there are simply too many, and especially too many small, semi-professional museums. It's simply not sustainable. If one county has five small museums struggling to get by, each employing two and a half people, the county's cultural heritage is going to be poorly interpreted. If several of them merge or at least form a consortium, then they could get some work done together and not compete for scarce grant funding.

Anyway, that's my personal hobby horse, but our salaries _are_ poor and museums need to diversify their funding streams and merge with each other as necessary. Otherwise, EMPs are going to try to get into the field and simply have to leave because they can't support themselves.

Anonymous said...

Responding to other posts: yes, work in needed on all fronts, from the academy, from AAM, from individual museum leaders and from an EMP groundswell push. I do think it is shameful for any member of the museum profession to advise students not to enter the field because of low salary offerings. Everyone should provide information – schools, professional organizations -- informing students (and staff) about salary ranges and providing data. NEMA does useful survey, as does AAMD, and many nonprofit organizations, perhaps in your town which is critical to understanding what you can command. Geography is one of the major determinants of salary.

In general, the other determinants of salary are
• Gender. Yes, women still get paid less on average, or places that deal with women’s issues: children, education, etc.
• Organizational scale. Smaller pay less but I’m not sure about mid and larger, particularly for entry level. This would be a good research question.
• Governance structure. Federal and state organizations usually pay more but then you get stuck with bureaucracy.
• Geography. Washington, New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco usually pay more; the cost-of-living and competition for jobs may be greater but so may be the opportunities.
• Ah, let’s call it, interchangeable parts. People who have skills they can apply in multiple industries usually command more money: for example, CFOs, development officers, facilities managers, with the advent of Homeland Security this area of museum work is commanding more salary.
• Current pay scale of the top staff reflects what can be paid at the bottom. If you are applying to a 501c3, go to and check the 990 where the top five salaries are listed.

Benefits play in, too. Some museums I know have held dearly to their benefit packages while local businesses have cut. These museums are now the nonprofit employers of choice.

My most brilliant idea of 2007 (sad, maybe) for retaining young staff: pay their school loans. Well, your federal government has decided to help with that effort. The idea is that the student consolidates her loan, pays a reasonable amount based on salary, and then (unbelievably) after 10 years the remainder of the loan is forgiven.

Tulane University put together a great fact sheet on this new law: The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007:

Godspeed making headway with the salary issue.

Unknown said...

How can I contact your bloggers about a job posting at my nonprofit contemporary art center in Charleston, SC? I would love to reach your audience!



Anonymous said...

I earned an MA in art history and museum studies ten years ago, and consider myself to be extraordinarily lucky in that I have held full-time museum jobs consistently ever since. Like many posters here, I was drawn to the field not for the big bucks, but because I loved it. And that does count for something during those first few years out of school when you are lucky to earn the equivalent of an entry level job at McDonalds. You feel almost noble in your dedication to the important work you’re doing, and you’re willing to scrape by on Ramen noodles and sharing an apartment with roommates.

But the thing is, time goes by, your ability to support yourself becomes increasingly out of whack with that of your peer group, and even the most noble museum worker can start to get frustrated. People in business or law or medicine have a clear career trajectory, and there are opportunities for substantial promotions and serious raises. Your friends start buying real estate and investing for the future, and you still have multiple roommates at 30 and can’t afford to put a dime in your savings account. Even if you get promoted or move on to a more impressive position in the museum field, you’re lucky to get a 5% or 10% raise. And let me tell you, 10% of $30 or $40K doesn’t add up to much, especially with inflation these days.

Another poster talked about refusing to take a “pitiful” $60K salary… Let me tell you, $60K is the kind of salary that is reserved for upper management positions at the fairly large Northeastern museum where I work. It’s all well and good to say we should just demand better salaries. But let me share a secret as someone who has been on the hiring end of things a number of times by now. If you refuse to take a job because the salary is too low, there are at least a dozen people right behind you who will GLADLY take your place. Unless you’re some kind of wunderkind, there really isn’t a whole lot of room to negotiate. (And even if you are, the museum may decide they can’t afford you.) The excessive number of museum studies programs in this country have created a glut. There are WAY more museum professionals out there these days than there are jobs. And there will always be someone who is willing to survive on less, or who has family money or whatever. So this, I think, is the failing of museum studies programs. They flood the market and make it much easier for museums to keep salaries low, and they churn out a bunch of people who, never mind living on a low salary, may NEVER find a full-time museum job at all.

You can ask your museum’s development staff to raise more money in order to try and solve this problem, but I think you might find they’re too busy trying to keep the museum in the black, or keep the roof from leaking. Many museums are in a pretty bleak situation financially these days, so they’re trying to save money for the absolute essentials. Unfortunately, paying high salaries is not seen as one of them, because it doesn’t need to be at the moment. If it was so easy for them to ask donors for money or to find additional ways to earn income, I really think they would be trying that already. To the question “And you mean to tell me that they can’t afford to pay people more!?!???!? They can’t afford to pay their interns!??!?!,” I would say um, no, seriously, in many cases they can’t.

I know I probably sound incredibly bitter, but I want to be clear that I’m not. I’ve just witnessed a lot of how hiring and setting salaries work in museums, and I’m very realistic about the current situation. I do think this is something that needs to be discussed and kept in the spotlight in settings like AAM. And I think the recently published research about the alarming number of young nonprofit professionals who are leaving for other fields is starting to get peoples’ attention. I really hope that together we can convince museum administrations and boards to take this issue seriously. For the time being, I’ve started entertaining thoughts of moving into other, more lucrative adjacent fields, and I never thought I would be saying that when I first got out of grad school.

Anonymous said...

3.) start encouraging/forcing museums to disclose salary ranges for job opportunities

I would like to see this. It is never clear that different applicants will get the same salary for a given job - even if it is implied that the job has a single starting price. Openness will only help the employee. It may seem rude, but workers should discuss what they earn.

Anonymous said...

This is such a difficult topic. Who is to blame? I think it's more than the profession, more than museum studies programs.

I went to the University of Denver, and at least when I was there, they were very honest about the difficulties of the profession. We were told that we would put in long hours, be paid no where near what we were worth, and that we would probably have to move somewhere else to get started. Over half of my class has left the field.

I was at the top of my class and it took more than 8 months to find a job and I was in Denver where museums abound, and I was willing to move anywhere.

The fault can only partially be with the museums. Many museums don't have the money to pay people more and staffing is notoriously difficult to fund.

Unfortunately, I think the fault is with society as a whole. Where is the money going to come from if the museum, the city, the state, the government, or whoever is running the museum doesn't have it? It can only come from the public, whose treasures we are protecting and exhibiting.

In general, I am lucky. I make a decent salary and I work for a municipality in a city that believes strongly in education and culture. But I am stuck. If I want another job, I will likely have to take a huge paycut, even if I move up.

Unionizing is an interesting concept, but what would the unforeseen consequences be? I think that there would be less staff to do the jobs and although one person would be better paid with better benefits, there would be many less jobs to go around.

I wish I knew the answer.

Amanda said...

Thanks for sharing this post here. It's interesting to see what others have to say.

I'm currently transitioning from my current career into the museum field. It was definitely discussed in my graduate classes that the pay will never equal the work.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's one answer that will solve the problem. I think the issue of "the salary conundrum" is complex, and the only answer will be to address it on several different levels: a change in the museum field itself, an effort to garner more support for culture and the arts from city, state, and federal government, more advocacy for young professionals from AAM, and maybe even a grassroots effort.

The blame is not entirely on museums because many museums are legitimately broke and paying more money for staff is simply not in the cards. It also doesn't seem as though the responsibility should fall entirely on AAM either.

It's an important issue in this growing field, and I think many of us will be watching closely as it unfolds more and more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for inciting this discussion. I've enjoyed reading the various opinions on this topic and would like to add my own.

First, I don't think museum studies programs are to blame by not being honest about salaries. I think they are often brutally honest about salaries. They are however, responsible for flooding the market and creating a mass of young graduates willing to "break in" the business at any salary level, no matter how low. Thus, it is true that it's difficult to bargain for a job when there are a dozen others who will take it for less pay.

I think one of the major issues is that there is salary inequity between departments within museums. Marketing, facilities, IT, etc. jobs (all positions that aren't specific to museums) tend to be more competitive and have higher pay than collections-based positions which are specific to the museum field. This being said, a curator with a PhD may be making less than the IT coordinator with a 6-month certificate from Microsoft (not saying these people aren't skilled, just noting the fact that salary is not commensurate with education).

I honestly don't have numbers or proof for these generalizations, but that brings me to another issue: transparency. Why not make employees' salaries public knowledge so that everyone knows what they are getting into and where any upward mobility will take them. There has been research that claims that such transparency reassures employees, more than it discourages them.

Upward mobility is another issue. Within certain departments (such as curatorial), advancement is difficult if not impossible, due to the nature of the position. An individual can work for years as an assistant, but with no potential for upward mobility, his or her salary will never go up significantly. Is this fair?

The museum I work at (a mid-sized art museum, which also illustrates where my perspective derives from) is activally working on an employee compensation study currently, and come the next fiscal year, we'll see what affect it has. It can be difficult working at a place where we will purchase an object worth three-times my salary, which will then go straight into storage for years. I disagree with the notion that no trustee will donate for salaries. If they knew how little we were being paid, maybe they would consider throwing a few million our way.

The truth is that money motivates people. It's hard to make a field truly competitive, when every employee is wondering if they shouldn't try another profession next year so they can pay for their mortgage or for their kids' doctor bills.

What needs to happen in my museum at least is: 1) the completion of this compensation study and a yearly review; 2) concerted efforts to provide and pay for professional advancement for ALL employees (not just upper management); 3) upward mobility options for ALL staff; 4) greater salary and benefits transparency; 5) more employee recognition and appreciation(sometimes they forget to invite us to member openings).

Although every non-profit empolyee accepts they won't be millionaires, and most love working for their cause, the facts of life and money leave a bitter taste in unappreciated employees' mouths.

One benefit of my job: great vacation time and free entrance into every art museum in the US. :)

Anonymous said...

There are many good responses here and I have enjoyed reading them all. I have a Masters in Museum Education, have been working professionally for almost 4 years at a university museum and feel good about my compensation – I benefit from the university pay structure that all university staff members are entitled to. However, when I first started, I paid my dues and worked my way up to my current position and pay – it was hard, I had a Masters Degree and experience and felt entitled to more. But I did feel prepared by my grad school for the truth about pay, for that I am grateful. Also, my graduate program ONLY accepted 3 people per year into the Museum Ed. Program. What a blessing. They knew the field was saturated. And even with only 2 other students, I still ended up going up against a good friend who graduated the year before me for the same job. I remember my department head saying something to the effect of “you better hope more men get into Museum Education, because that’s the only way your pay will get equitable” – is that a depressing truth? Let’s hope not….

Anonymous said...

The original post mentioned lobbying for "equity in pay." Equity with what, exactly?
I'm a curator of education -- entry-level public school teachers in my area (depending on the district), make +/- about $2k of my salary. Teachers with a Masters and 2 years' experience may make about $6k more than me.
In my academic field, tenure-track positions at universities (not including places like Stanford), is about on par with what public school teachers make, when you look at appropriate degrees on the salary schedule.

Also, was the 3,000+ museum studies programs reported above a typo? That would be about 58 programs per state (and D.C.). I know my state has officially one such program, and maybe 2 others you could count if you stretched.

lark said...

Really interesting thread. I'm interested if anybody knows any resources for researching pay scales?
I actually was accepted into a Museum Studies program while I was currently employed at an art museum, and decided not to pursue it, because my employer advised me that I would come back to the exact same position and salary. At the moment I'm happy with my decision, although I would ultimately like to go back to school. However, now that I'm trying to rise in my museum, I have no sense of pay scale. I'd love to see any reports or anything that would shed some light on this subject.

Nathan said...

I know that the Association of Midwest Museums has a regional salary index and have been told as does the New England Association of Museums. If other regions do, I don't know of them. I understand that NYC museums are notorious for not showing or sharing salaries.


Anonymous said...

AAM provides regular salary surveys, do they not?

Anonymous said...

I heard about this this fall but have yet to find really good information on this. I think this is really important for people to know about. Our government also has concerns about the non-profit sector and lack of qualified candidates for fill positions because of high education costs. Please read below:

H.R. 2669: The College Cost Reduction and Access Act – Courtesy of Maryland Nonprofits

On Friday Sept. 7, both houses of Congress approved a conference committee report including employees of 501(c)(3) organizations as ‘public sector’ employees for purposes of a new loan forgiveness provision. Among numerous other provisions (see below), the legislation defines employment by 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations as a ‘public sector job’ making the individual eligible for loan balance forgiveness after 10 years of payments under an income contingent repayment plan.

I talked with the bank who holds my student loans and they said that there is no good information on this because its so new and nobody will qualify for at least 10 yrs. As I understand it, if you are not able to make full payments on your student loans, and you have worked in a 501c3 for 10 yrs, under the Direct Loan Program, you can have your debts forgiven.

Does anyone else know about this or could provide more information?

Anonymous said...

Several things:

To anonymous who has been in the field for 10 years, thank you for contributing your experience. I agree that the poster who considers $60,000 a pitiful salary is going to be laughed out of many buildings.

I don't think museum studies programs are at fault for failing to provide information about salaries, but I think they are absolutely at fault for churning out so many graduates. I graduated from George Washington University a few years ago and found it was already extremely difficult to find a job in DC with all of the qualified people in the area. Nevertheless, Georgetown started a museum studies program of their own, and GW continued to accept more and more students into the program, regardless of their ability to fit them into reasonably sized classes or help them find job after graduation.

RC-AAM (the registrar's committee of AAM) has decided that another salary survey is in order and is beginning to conduct one.

Finally, about student loans, I think this program is pretty unlikely to help anyone. For starters, you can only get your loans forgiven if you have either paid on a ten year repayment plan for ten years (in which case you won't have anything left to pay) or if you have paid on the income-related plan for 10 years. It sounds like you have to consolidate your loans directly through the US dept of education, although I'm not sure about that one. You have to work at a 501c3 for all ten years. I think the best thing to do is talk to your lender to make sure you're on track to qualify, but from the previous post, this may not even work.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. As a museum studies grad, I found myself working in the collections management department of a large museum. Couldn't afford the basics and was confused because all my coworkers seemed to be doing just fine. It took me a while (dudes, I'm slow) to realize that I was working with trust fund kids. So, okay, cool for them they were nice and I'm not criticizing them. But query what this adds to the condundrum and museums' alleged quest for diversity. It was too disheartening for me though and I ended up leaving the profession and finding something where I can actually support myself.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Thanks for this brilliant post (and subsequent comments) I think this is an issue that effects all Museum professionals, you may be interested to see that I have made a comment on a Conservation Blog about a similar issue, and would be interested in hearing any ideas you'll had about how we could collectively as Museum professionals approach improving these issues...

Anonymous said...

Hey, I am not in the profession yet, but was looking forward in attending a Museum Studies program at John Hopkins Uni. Reading these posts helped me out when looking into the field, so I would like to thank all of you who took your time and included your input. I do have a question. When looking at jobs, I see that Directors and Curators make a lot of money. Most of these high paying jobs are when employed bye the Smithsonian. These jobs are 6 digits so I dont know if those jobs are basically impossible or what. But from what everyone is saying, Im thinking that they are not reachable.
When saying that the museum fields pay low, what is low for everyone. For me $60,000 is great. But at the same time, I am kind of getting nervous. Should I look for another career? I always wanted to work at a museum, but at the same time, I dont want to waste my time (That is what Im getting from everyone.) If anyone wants to help me out directly, my e-mail is

Invisible Ink said...

I just found this blog. I realize this post has been quiet awhile, but if anyone is still out there, I am wondering HOW BAD IS IT salary-wise for Museum Professionals?

I am in the midst of a mid-career change, and have been dreaming of a museum career, but I am not up for years of ramen and roommates (been there, done that).

Can we get some numbers? Coming out of a Museum Studies Program -- what is an average starting salary? 5 years on? 10 years on?

Are we talking fast-food wages or high school teacher wages?

Thanks for any input!

Anonymous said...

Great subject, thanks for starting this post.

I am one of those people who sadly couldn't afford to stay in the arts despite my deep love for the arts.

After working in some of the largest and most prestigious museums in the northeast for 10 years I couldn't stay. I changed to the business world and my salary has doubled from my end museum salary in one year.

The idea of unions has come up in a couple of the posts and I was a member of a union at one of the museums and it didn't do much in terms of salary: I went from 30K-35K in 5 years.

I also agree with the person who said that said that there is a long line of people happy to take a job behind you if you're not willing to take the salary they offer you.

I was told that salaries are nonegotiable after trying to negotiate at two separate institutions.

When I was responsible for hiring a new temporary employee at one museum I received close to 100 applications, most of which were qualified if not overqualified and clamoring to get the job.

I don't believe it is the school's sole responsibility. My museum studies program told me that I was going to be paid poorly and I didn't care when I was looking for jobs because I cared so much for the subject. But after 10 years my motivation faded and as one of the posts mentioned I would have had a sustained drive had I been paid fairly.

It is truely a shame because I miss the art world and am sure there are others in the same boat.

David Tech Guy said...

That's a cool post ive never heard that point of view on job salaries. If I was you I would start a talk show. I would tune in to it haha.

Anonymous said...

I worked for a number of years at a New York City museum. I developed programs. The hours were endless and I often worked holiday weekends and seven days a week. I was a salaried employee and, therefore, I did not recieve overtime or comp time. I rarely saw my freinds or family and missed a friend's funeral because I had to meet a deadline. I can go on.

Furthermore, the director of the Museum was very abusive to employees--which made the place a living hell to work at.

I came in the door and asked for starting salaries in the mid-eigthies. I had well over 12 years work experience in another field--education.

This is not king or queen's ransom in New York City; however, had I been a police officer or fireman (recieving overtime), I would have easily earned well over $100,00 grand per year and the truth of the matter, the job was a $104,000 per year (base pay job)!

If you come from a rich family an can afford to take a meager salry, well, work for a museum. If you have to actually pay bills and live in an apartment, my STRONG advice to the young and gullible is to forget about Museums as an occupation.

I mean, you are dealing with well off and wealthy trustees who appear to be oblivious to your situation. A piece of jewelry on this finger or a watch represents a year's pay for a good number of Museum staff.

It is exploitation with a capital "E". Plain and simple. And I think museum workers need union representation because what museums do is find ways to overwork and exploit workers without having to pay them.

vishnuprasath said...

It's useful information
View salary information for thousands of different companies.
Search for salaries by company, city or profession.

jennie kiessling said...

This is all very good information.
I currently teach museum studies at the ommunity college level in Colorado. The program is successful. The students are very good and this is a jump start to the field for them. I am orginally from Chicago where i worked in the arts for years. Salaries,well,its true you need to love this work, really love it. And adopting the platform of a "cultural worker" will help in keeping you alive.
I will not leave the field. I am currently living on about $15,000, teaching, so my salary went down obviously,leaving Chgo (from $30,000,went from admin to teaching) Unions? Yes, without a doubt, the field in all of its numerous areas should be unionized. We know that payscales in this field are very uneven. What does the Director of the MOMA make? Is there a change in the works anytime soon? Unfortunatly, i don't think so. This is tragic. However, if you have read the book "Seven Days in the Art World" it will give you a reminder of where you stand. In the art world or the art market? Both? It is your choice.I wish all of you continued success and would encourage you to stay with it if you love it and if not get out as it is true that there are many behind you who will happily accept the job, for now.

Anonymous said...

In large part I think the salary conundrum is the fault of the universities and colleges with museum studies or museum education programs. They admit and graduate hundreds, if not thousands of graduates a year fully knowing that there are not enough institutions or positions to support them.

While I know there are English majors out there without jobs, what is a young graduate with a degree in Museum Education supposed to do besides work in a museum? That expensive masters degree doesn't transfer over to qualify me to teach in a public school. Basically the degree is worthless unless it is applied to a museum, right?

I am one semester away from finishing my degree and I am already beginning to regret my career choice. I was never in it to get rich, but honestly if I can't even find a job in my field after graduation what the hell will I do?

jennie kiessling said...

I am sorry to hear your lack of clarity about what to do when you get out of school. It sounds as if the school you are attending is not giving you very clear definitions. It's a bit late in your school career to have the questions that you have if the insititution that you are attending is preparing you well.

First of all there is a substantial difference between Museum Education and Museum Studies they are two different fields. Study in both areas offers more than just jobs in museums. You're in a creative field it is important to think creativly about what you actually do. What your skills are. What you bring to the table.

There are 17,500 museums in the US alone. New museums are breaking ground regularly. If you have a local museum association you should join that and you should be a member of AAM and you should be on board with what is happening in local and regional art councils. Alot of them post job opportunities and they are out there.

The jobs will not come to you. They don't come to new lawyers, plumbers, landscape architects, green consultants, scientists, etc... you have to go to them.
Get ready!

Anonymous said...

I came upon this blog several years after it started, but I found it quite relevant. I graduated with an undergraduate in Anthropology archaeology concentration. The going rate for the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) field archaeologists is about$25,000 per year. With several years of experience, one can move up to about $30,000 if they are ambitious. Four years of archaeology field work helped me land a museum job in the Great Lakes region. One can expect to make $25,000-$30,000 in the museum field with a B.A. and several years of experience. There is very little upward mobility or pay increase.

aa said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. For the past 5 years I have been the full time Education Program Coordinator for a mid size, non profit county history museum. I was actually just online trying to research why I make so little. Our Executive Director says our staff makes what the average professionals do for our size museum. All of your comments have made me feel better but so sad in a way too. What is with the Museum field? So rewarding intellectually yet so disappointing monetarily. I started at $27,000 and am now at $29,000. (100% free health insurance included)and how can you ask for a raise?? there's little money. I do love what I do, but have a very large work load due to limited education staff (2 of us). Not only do I create, organize and teach all programming but also plan exhibit special events, teacher conferences, manage student membership program, gift shop...and the list goes on as many of you all probably experience. I have a BS in Geography, Environmental Studies and started out in the Environmental field as an educator, wilderness ranger, etc. The outdoors is calling my name. Although leaving the Museum would be are always learning new things in this field. That is a BIG plus about working at a museum. The down side is you are often overworked. I'd say to people; if museum's are your passion, if you enjoy people and being busy, and are good at time management, go for it! Every year there are more and more grad student intern candidates in Museum Studies programs interviewing to work for free. These people are usually extremely motivated and passionate. I am willing to do any activism out there to help us receive justice. Not just to stroke the ego, but to get the compensation we deserve.

Jonathan KAtz said...

I am the Executive Producer of a design/build firm that produces exhibitions using an integrated SCM approach. Thus we need not only cross trained designers, in both technical and procedural areas, but are actively looking for museum studies grads to demonstrate talent working with both content and design. This being said, the coyness in most of these posts obscures real information. Why can't people mention the name of their school, their degree- B.A. or Master, and the actually wage rates getting offered or taken? Without those specifics, it sounds like people feeling sorry for themselves, rather than sharing information, which could lead to change. FYI, we typically pay above going wages, as far as we can tell, because we believe in quality, performance, and fairness.

Anonymous said...

I am not a Museum Professional and know very little about your field. However I do have a friend who makes $10.00 an hour working in a museum. He is a graduate of a very prestigious university with a Masters degree in Museum Professional. His director has a BA in teaching with no museum experience and makes over 100,000. You have a very sad profession. If you want the respect from non-professionals, board members, etc. you better organize better. Sorry, but paying out thousands of dollars for an education only to end up hiding in a museum at $10.oo an hour is a sad story. You deserve better.

Anonymous said...

I am not a museum professional either. But just a few comments. Just because you have a passion for the field you work in doesn't mean you should be exploited by low-wages. Wages and passion are not the same thing. If you are spending thousands of dollars and a good chunk of your life on education then you are entitled to a good salary. If you don't want a good salary and just want to live off your passion that is your business (however neurotic). Again, I am not a museum professional, however I have a lot of respect for your field and I hope you have the same respect. As 'young museum professionals' you need to advocate for yourselves and organize. Most professional fields have professional organizations that advocate for their profession AMA, APA,NASW. Stop allowing yourselves from being exploited. I for one do blame museum studies programs. How dare they train people for jobs that pay less than a janitor without advocating for them. How dare they not promote an organization to protect their alumni from being exploited by the field.

Anonymous said...

It will never change until everyone in this industry finds the courage to bite the hand that feeds it. Whether that be through unionization or simply refusing to accept so little. With the cost of education nowadays it is nonsensical to accept such a low salary. What good is a job if it doesn't provide a living wage. Prestige doesn't put food on the table, it won't even afford you the table to put food on.

Anthea said...

I am late to this blog, but wanted to add my two cents. I am from NYC originally and have an art background. I toyed with the idea of making it my career but quickly (and sadly) dismissed it, since it was was pretty common knowledge that these jobs pay notoriously low, and are primarily filled by those with family money/trust funds.

Ani at ArtsTie said...

This post is from a while back but I think your writing is still 100% pertinent.

Of the 4 points you mention to increase salaries, I think some progress has been made in encouraging organizations to disclose salary ranges (especially thanks to the posts at

Nonetheless, the search engine for art jobs at ArtsTie only has 2 museum jobs mentioning a specific salary number. (Disclosure: I founded ArtsTie to improve the information available for job seekers in the arts.)

Another strategy that an individual can use to increase his pay is to research the market to see what types of skills are most in demand. You can do that just by looking at job postings. Also, making a clear connection between your work and results that your boss/the board care about helps. I.e. I worked on exhibit x that attracted donor y who gave $z,000,000.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post but I wanted to share my experience working in the museum field with those just entering the field. To give you some context, I created media and video content for one of the large museums in New York City for ten years.

Although my work was interesting and there were a lot of things I loved about my job, and I gained some great experience there were few opportunities for growth and I was always just scraping by financially. As my friends moved into apartments of their own (some of them buying their own apartments) and got promoted once, twice three times I took a look at my own career trajectory, quality of life and passion for my work and decided to switch fields.

To go back to the original post - do the museum studies programs share some responsibility for the low pay of museums? Although museum studies programs don't help the situation any (and there are also school loans to consider) the real problem lies with museums and the fact that they can get away with paying their employees low wages.

I don't have any brilliant solutions to offer but I do think that the idea of having museums offset student loans is an interesting one. I would also encourage people entering the field to look at a jobs potential for career growth and really think about where they want to be financially in five or ten years... (The museum I worked had an average cost of living salary increase of 3%...and if times were tough like in 2008, salaries would freeze for 2 years or so, promotions themselves were rare - an employee who got great reviews from their supervisor could go for 6 years without a promotion.) I'd also encourage new employees to push for flexible work schedules so as to possibly take on side gigs to help support yourself.

In any case - I wish you all the best. Remember that you are working in a very challenging field... and yes, you are valuable and you should be paid more.

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