Friday, February 19, 2010

Salary Survey Post #2: Satisfaction Levels

The numbers we put out yesterday shocked some people and left others cold. Obviously when you’re working with a self-selecting sample you’re going to have some built-in biases. For example, as Steven Lubar pointed out our “high end” isn’t actually as high as things go. There are much higher salaries reported and publically available on 990s; for example, the Director of the MoMA recently pulled down a salary of $2,111,000 as Kat pointed out back in December.

Of course, the most highly paid people are unlikely to have stumbled on our little survey. Since we are a blog and most people found us via Twitter, our sample is going to align most closely with the demographic of most Twitter-using museos. Twitter’s main demographic is aged 18-34, so it’s safe to assume that many of our respondents come from this group that the AAM would call “Emerging Museum Professionals.” [1] We have to take a lot of these factors into account before we can present the majority of the results [2], so we’re going to keep things simple at first.

Now that we know what the basic salary range was, let’s see how satisfied people were. [Note: Satisfaction level has not yet been plotted against the salaries themselves. This is general level of satisfaction. The rest will happen, I promise!]

As you can see, on a scale from 1-5 most museos rate their salary satisfaction a 3. This is again taken only from respondents who are working full time [3].


To present the data in another form, that’s fully 33% of the respondents. And as for mostly satisfied, i.e. a 4 0r a 5 out of 5? Just over 25% of the people who took our survey.


This breakdown strikes me as a little odd when compared to yesterday’s salary data. Do these cases surprise you?

  • The Chicago area collections specialist making between $20,000-$25,000 who rates his or her satisfaction as a 3?
  • The administrator with 25 years of experience who rates his or her roughly $35,000/year salary a 4 out of 5?
  • The educator with 12 years of experience who is rates his or her $35,000-$40,000 salary a 3 out of 5?
  • The full-time exhibits specialist making $10,000-$20,000 (full-time at minimum wage falls into this range) who rates his or her satisfaction a 3?

Here’s the part where I start to editorialize.

It seems like although people are unwilling to say they're satisfied with what they're earning, they're not willing to say they think it's terrible either. But from an objective standpoint? It's terrible. You should be angrier.

I feel like someone needs to grant you permission explicitly. I'm going to be a jerk and do it.

You have permission to be angry. Not just about salaries, or the lack of advancement opportunities. You have permission to be angry about anything. You have permission to be angry at museums as an institution. You have permission to be angry at your graduate school program. You have permission to be angry at your employer. You have permission to be angry at me for having the sheer gall to grant you permission to express your feelings. You have permission to be angry about anything.

More importantly, you have permission to voice your discontent. You don't have to pretend things are hunky dory when they're not. That's not how changes get made. You shouldn't have to worry that some potential future employer might stumble on your blog or your Twitter or a comment you wrote and decide that your refusal to deny your (fully justifiable) anger disqualifies you from working at their museum. That by saying "Yes, museum salaries are insufficient across the board and I feel I deserve better pay, more benefits, and greater advancement opportunities" you will price yourself out of the museum job market entirely. That's not how changes get made. If you feel like pay is insufficient but are both willing to accept that pay and unwilling to speak out against it, do you honestly believe things will improve? Optimism is wonderful, but hoping for a better future without doing anything precludes change.

I'm not encouraging you to riot or go on strike or do anything you're uncomfortable with, I'm just asking you to be wholehearted about what you're feeling. Discuss low salaries. Acknowledge that they're low. Who's going to do it if you don't?

Let’s take one last look at the numbers.


The average reported level of satisfaction for these 99 full-time museos was 2.78 out of 5. That’s ever so slightly closer to dissatisfied than satisfied. There’s hope for museos yet.

[1] Another question on the survey asked how many years respondents had been working in the museum field. We don’t have that graphed yet, but the answer is around 5.581 years on average.

[2] By that I mean that I need to wait on Kat to do these things, because she is the brains behind this salary survey. I am the opinionated hothead who editorializes, she comes bearing scientific data. What a team!

[3] This is something that will be ironed out in future surveys. There are many questions that require clarification. In the future we will probably ask for part-time wages to be stated as hourly earnings, not as an annual salary. There was no clear way to distinguish between museos who responded with actual earnings versus those who responded with their pro rata salary, or between people who were essentially full-time but paid hourly and people who worked 10 hours a week.


  1. I really appreciate your intent, but this somehow reminds me of the scene from the movie Network, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

    However, until people REFUSE to accept substandard pay, museums (being notoriously cheap) will continue to offer lousy wages.

    The problem with the "refusal" scenario is that there are always lots of applicants for museum positions (including those who ARE willing to accept lousy wages to get their foot in the door.)

    Honestly, as someone who grew up in a Detroit union household, the only way I can see to force a change in the situation is some form of collective bargaining with teeth.

  2. @Paul The initial impetus behind Museos Unite was to try and start a museum union. The disinterested silence was deafening! We've since reevaluated our path, but who knows where it will lead us in the future? Part of the point of this survey is to get data that we can use to make people see the light--and the light here isn't that salaries are low (everyone knows that) but that WE (meaning museos) are the ones who have to say and do something about that. There's a lot of quiet dues-paying and yes, as you say people who are willing to (and well-off enough to) accept substandard wages in the hopes of getting their foot in the door. Until people WANT collective bargaining there won't be collective bargaining. If I have to look like a crazy person to get museos to sit up and take a little interest in their long-term prospects, then so be it!

  3. PASTA-MoMA notwithstanding, the majority of museum workers are not entitled to unionize legally; just guards, retail & the like- nothing that fall under the definition (not the title) of managerial.


  4. @CJN212 What do you mean by "entitled to unionize?" Do you mean that there is currently no way for museum workers to unionize across several museums? Because that's certainly true, and one of the reasons we were playing with an open source union a la the Freelancers Union; each workplace must organize separately. However, every worker has the right to join a union regardless of their title or the color of their collar. (I speak from a US context here. I don't know the laws of other countries, although the right to unionize is specifically mentioned in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) The biggest barriers to white collar unionization are mental ones, not legal ones.

  5. @CJ - Some follow-up:

    1) It seems like you're on to something with management not being allowed to bargain as a part of a union, but I haven't found anything specific relating to this, just mentions like yours. If you know of anything specific I would love to read it!

    2) The more specific of the mentions I'm finding seem to tie the prohibition to the Wagner Act, but the text of the Wagner Act mentions no such thing. I can only imagine this must stem from legal precedent, not the Act itself, but again I can't find anything.

    3) How do we define management? To use myself as an example, I answer directly to the Board of Directors. "HR" is the HR Committee of the Board, and my specific Board is extremely hands-on. Additionally, although I don't manage employees I do run the museum's volunteer program. Does this make me management, even though I have almost no autonomy? Does it make me an employee? It seems like there's a legal case to be made either way, and I'm sure a lot of museos are in a similar position. Should we not engage with the question and not pursue all paths to museo rights because we might not like the answers or the outcomes?

  6. I think a lot of the problem is low expectations. After 5 years of volunteering, I'll be pretty overjoyed with any museum job that pays a living wage.

    The anger is there, but it tends to get expressed in safer ways - people are furious that the institutions are underfunded. The bigger picture is overwhelming, but I think we need reminding that if we don't get cross about the individual issues nothing will happen.

    I also think that middle options have quite a lot of psychological force for anyone who considers their situation to be a bit complicated. I'd be very interested to see what would happen if people were presented with a stark either/or: satisfied or unsatisfied.

  7. @Abi - yes, there is anger that the museums are underfunded. There should be! They are amazing resources. Thanks for pointing out that anger.

    But guess what? YOU, my friend and fellow museo, are an amazing resource. As Kirsten wrote recently (badly paraphrased) museos are more important to museums than collections.

    Want to get really mad? Go back to the idea that kicked this all off -- see what people at the top are making. Go to and check the 990 form for your museum, or any museum in your city. Check some famous museums. You can see exactly what the top 5 earners are being paid.

    So the museum can afford to pay THEM that amount, but it can't afford to pay you at all? You have been volunteering for 5 years? (granted, maybe the museum you volunteer at is all volunteers, but still, that really is not an ideal situation for ANYONE).

    PS - this response is a bit of a spoiler for an entry that will be coming up in the next several weeks...

  8. @Kat I may not have expressed myself very clearly. I certainly do get angry at the current situation (mine and museos in general).

    Rather, I was saying that there's more dissatisfaction than the survey might show because we're too good at making the best of it. Which is a pity, and very much why you're needed.

  9. That's me (Abi). I don't know what's going on with it changing how it identifies me.