Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Solutions Series 1: The Robin Hood Rule

Here is the first entry in our previously announced “solutions series,” in which Museos Unite presents options (aka crazy ideas) that could be utilized by museums to remedy the whole really-low-paid-museos issue.

Just to review the situation: we have Museos all over the world who are coming out of graduate programs in Museum Studies--having racked up student loans—who are then forced to volunteer (unpaid), intern (unpaid or low paid), take part time work (low paid and no health care), or even get a full time job that offers a wage below the living wage. This unfortunate situation leads to Museos feeling undervalued, overworked, resentful, and angry. In some cases, Museos with a lot of potential have to leave the field they love because they cannot afford to work for free.

Yes, people sometimes have to leave a field they love and make a difficult choice to take other work, and many people point fingers and accuse these discouraged Museos of “not loving museums enough” or “caring about money too much.” Any Museo who has been following this blog since we started in August knows this argument well, and has probably gotten frustrated that the people who are making these arguments must actually be on the flip side: they must have some sort of financial support in place that allows them to throw this argument around.

This brings me to what I would call the “Robin Hood Rule.” The original idea, “rob from the rich and give to the poor,” is slightly related, but my idea is more derived from the very argument I brought up above. The two elements (1) that someone who works in museums or nonprofits should not be in it for the money and (2) that if someone works in a museum and is dedicated to its mission, then they should accept a lower pay than people in other fields because they love what they are doing. I say, let’s take this argument and instead of applying it to entry level jobs paying $25,000 , let’s instead apply it to the museum directors at the top who are making $250,000.

That’s right. Use that exact argument they are throwing down at the entry level museos and throw it back in their faces. If they love museums so much, then why do they need a high six-figure salary? Or even, in some cases, a SEVEN figure salary? Isn’t the fact that they get to be in such a great place enough? Or that they get to interact with an incredible collection, or the admiring public?

Therefore, I propose that museums cap the amount that directors make. I would say there is no need for a museum director (or any employee) to make more than $100,000. Sure, in some large cities maybe they would need a cost of living adjustment, but let’s be reasonable. If you take the extra money that person was getting and then redistribute it down to the other salaries, you’d never have anyone starting at a salary below the living wage. Let’s say the lowest salary able to be offered would be $36,000 to someone with an undergrad degree and $40,000 to someone with a grad degree. Those are very fair starting salaries.

“But then the best people would leave the field or go to other museums!” you say. Oh really? If the money is so important to them, then should they be in charge of the museum? Just think. There are hundreds of applicants for a entry level museo job these days, which is why they can afford to offer low pay. There is ALWAYS someone who will work at that lower pay. How many great Museos do you think would be willing to say “heck yeah, I’d be a museum director for $100,000!” And then if they decided they wanted more money after a while, they could go ahead and leave the field, thus opening the position up to new talent who is again willing to accept a very fair wage.

For example, let’s use the biggest museum in my home city, The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). The director made $338,873 in 2008 ( If we take that down to the proposed $100,000 then we have a stunning $238,873 to redistribute. Now, if I add up the 8 highest paid employees (who all make over $100,000) and limit all of them down to $100,000, then guess how much money we have to throw around?

$771,352. From eight people.

If we assume there are a bunch of people at the bottom making $20,000 (which is probably not that far from the truth), then we could raise their pay up to $40,000 with this money… dramatically changing their lives from living below the poverty level to having a very good starting salary. How many of those low paid Museos could be helped with the extra [excessive] pay from the top Museos?

38 people could go from $20,000 to $40,000.

Even more dramatically, let’s delete the above option and just do this one. How many unpaid interns could be hired at a starting salary of $36,000?

21 people could go from unpaid to making $36,000.

And all of this because 8 people took pay cuts that limited them to a wage that's incredibly reasonable for living in Philadelphia.

There are actually many nonprofits with a structure like this. I talked to a man last month who runs a nonprofit, and he explained that everyone in the company makes between $40,000 and $90,000, no more and no less. No one is struggling to live, and no one is buying a yacht with golden toilets.

How can museums be a medium for discussion of social fairness if they are operating just like any huge, multi-national corporation instead of the nonprofits that they are? Ethically managed companies often have limits on what senior management can make, so why don’t museums join in?


NB – I know that for many small museums, no one is making even $40,000. I know this argument doesn’t apply to them. I’m going to think more on how to fix those things, but I think if the big museums started making changes, there would somehow be a trickle down effect. Does anyone have any ideas about that?


  1. I'd love if you could get an "on the record" response from PMA regarding your proposal.

  2. Haha! PS, I am not calling out the PMA personally, I am just using them because I live in Philly and therefore know about the cost of living here. I think they are just one of hundreds of museums who operate in this exact way!

    I doubt that the director and co would like this plan very much, right?

  3. Although I agree with the general principle of your argument, I have to disagree on one point. When I finished grad school (before the recent economic collapse) I certainly lucked into a good job in the field within a month of graduating, but I also had the guts to counter their offer and ASK for a higher salery, and got it. Then I preformed in my new job and asked for, and was given, a raise a year later.
    Exception to the rule? Probably, but if you don't ask for a raise and argue your case for why you deserve it, you won't get it. I for one, consider myself on track to get that six figure salary one day, and then I actually will be able to raise starting salaries.

  4. @Anon Yes, you probably are the exception to the rule. So why is the system set up as if the exception is the norm? If you, an exception, end up in a 6 figure salary that doesn't make it the norm, but you are certainly not the only person who thinks he or she is on track to entering the big leagues. Yet most of these people will be disappointed...

    That said, if you were willing to not be anonymous, perhaps you should write a guide to negotiation for museos. Unfortunately we didn't all start before the economic collapse so there's a lot of learned fear. People are reluctant to ask for anything better.

  5. I cannot agree with this proposal at all. CEOs, CFOs and Directors of large nonprofit institutions should certainly not be paid as highly as their counterparts in the commercial sector. However, they should be well compensated for the massive responsibility that they shoulder and the work that they do. These leaders are the most visible and active fundraisers, cheerleaders, and multitaskers for their respective organizations. Then there is dealing with Boards, high-level donors, and Government officials (both local and federal), which is an art unto itself, and if you can do it well, you are of great value. Finally, there's the old argument that in order to attract and retain top talent, you must pay them well, which I think holds true.

    Speaking personally, as someone who aspires to be a Director in the future, do I want my potential future salary capped at some arbitrary number by those in entry level positions who feel it is an unfair set up? Not in the least. I want to be paid according to my skills and demonstrated worth to the institution. Merit should come into play. I entered this profession because of my love and passion for the arts. But I still want to be paid well. Yes, you need to start at the bottom with crappy pay (if you are even paid), feeling underappreciated and overworked by rotten bosses. That's the game in almost any profession, unless you've been born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

    You have a problem with PMA paying Anne d'Harnoncourt close to $350,000 in the regrettably cut-short final year of her decades-long leadership? Look at what she did for PMA and Philadelphia's standing in the art world, and then tell me that she did not deserve an even higher salary.

    This year, upper level management and curators at PMA, along with other institutions nationwide, have voluntarily accepted significant payment reductions in order to avoid drastic staff cuts at lower levels. Isn't that love and belief in what they do?

  6. @Jeffrey
    Let’s take this point by point:

    “CEOs, CFOs and Directors of large nonprofit institutions should certainly not be paid as highly as their counterparts in the commercial sector. However, they should be well compensated for the massive responsibility that they shoulder and the work that they do.”

    And you do not agree that $100,000 is fair compensation? What would be an appropriate figure according to your reckoning? A Director, no matter how engaged or hardworking, does not do the work of approximately 6 people (using the figures above), entry level or not. And as Kat said, if they’re so concerned with making the big bucks then it isn’t as if there aren’t a lot of people on the lower rungs who are waiting to move up. That argument is tossed around ALL the time when entry level people want better salaries: there are people willing to work for peanuts so like it or lump it. In a profession where advancement is based on luck and circumstances as much as talent, I hardly think that the “top level” flight will cause a brain drain.

    “Speaking personally, as someone who aspires to be a Director in the future, do I want my potential future salary capped at some arbitrary number by those in entry level positions who feel it is an unfair set up? Not in the least.”

    Jeffrey, have you ever read “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank? It’s partly about how working class people in Kansas continually vote against their economic best interests because they hope to one day become rich. They don’t want to pass any legislation that would limit their potential future earnings, despite the fact that the legislation would help them out in the here and now. That’s what I think about every time I hear this argument. It’s all well and good that you hope to be a Director one day. So do a lot of people. Are you well placed to get there? Do you have the right connections, education, and attitude? I don’t know you, so I have no idea. Does any of that mean that you WILL be a Director one day? No. So for now you’re content to earn less because you hope that one day you will earn more. You don’t want to improve things NOW because one day you hope to make triple digits. What happens if you don’t make Director, as most people who aspire to do not? Your lifetime earnings could be greatly boosted by fair salaries at all stages of employment rather than a (possible) single shot of “reward pay” somewhere down the line.

    “Yes, you need to start at the bottom with crappy pay (if you are even paid), feeling underappreciated and overworked by rotten bosses. That's the game in almost any profession, unless you've been born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”

    Exactly WHY do people need to have crappy pay and be overworked by rotten bosses (overpaid museum directors?) when they’re starting out? What exactly does that achieve? Anyone who is telling you that things NEED to be this way is deeply entangled with the current system and invested in the status quo. And it isn’t the same in almost any profession. Paying your dues and having a terrible, low paying job are not the same thing. Read back in our blog a bit. Most professionals are not paid as poorly as museos. “Low pay” means something very different for a museo than it does for a teacher or an accountant or a police officer, and it’s usually a more permanent state of affairs than it is in those professions. Career advancement takes a long time, and many people are in “entry level” positions for a decade.

    In regards to your last two paragraphs, the PMA was used to illustrate a point. This wasn’t an attack on the PMA or its Director. Kat used the example because she’s from Philadelphia. Feel free to go to Guidestar and pick the museum of your choice. The numbers won’t be identical but the general idea will. And kudos to those who took a pay cut. They’re certainly on the right path. Again, this isn’t about the PMA personally. (Institutionally? Hmmm. Don’t mean to personify the institution.)

  7. I saw Michael Govan speak last spring here in Toronto. After the lecture it was disclosed that he makes something like $600,000.00 a year. This might be a bit much, but it is the LACMA. I have some concern about your proposal in that it assumes a few too many things. One being the point of not making much or anything at all starting out is that you have no experience. A' for effort does not get you a six figure income. I think we need to keep in mind that you have to work up to something and have something to look forward to achieving. I'm not implying that you should have to waste away in poverty in order to get there, but really...

  8. @psych - would you be able to clarify your argument a bit? I am not sure that I understand, and I would really enjoy having an international perspective, since I understand that Canada has different laws regarding charities/non profits from the USA. Thanks!

  9. @Kirsten
    Thank you for your very detailed response to my comments. I do think that you missed some of my points and I am still assured in my stance. It would be myopic to think that nonprofits do not have to compete in the same pool for top-level management candidates as the for-profit art world, let alone rest of the world. Still, while these top level salaries at nonprofits are no match with those at commercial enterprises, they offer an attractive pull for the best qualified candidates who are willing to get paid less than they might in a for-profit setting, but get to work for a place with a mission and focus that feeds their soul.

    I think that PMA was and is a great example to illustrate both of our points, so allow me to extrapolate further (I live here too). If as the Director, you have the aptitude to manage a museum of that size and scope, taking into account all of the different employee personalities that come into play, the size of the collection, the facilities and infrastructure, incoming and outgoing loans, budgets, grants, paperwork, public relations, trustees, Venice Biennale... I could go on and on. It all boils down to the weight of the responsibility that you shoulder. Sure there are upper, middle, and lower level managers below you and a Board above you, who all are ostensibly there to help. And yes, there is D&O insurance if you screw up big time (not that this would save your personal and professional reputation). But still, $350,000 is a bargain to have someone of the caliber of Anne d'Harnoncourt as leader. She undoubtedly loved her job, loved PMA, and loved Philadelphia. But would she or anyone else have stuck around very long if they hit an arbitrary salary cap at $100,000 regardless of their talent, proven track record, and undying passion for their work? Not bloody likely.

  10. I think the point is that "entry-level professional salaries" in museums are ridiculously low (period) and more on par with paraprofessional salaries in other fields.
    Common "entry level" pay in my area for museums is $30K or under, without health insurance, retirement, etc. This is generally for people with an MA, 6 months to several years of volunteering/interning, etc.
    Compare that to school teachers (supposedly enormously underpaid), who, with a few months internship/practicum and a BA/BS get all sorts of benefits, and a starting salary of $35,569. With an MA, the first step is $42,543.
    I am about to start a new job (non-profit, but not a museum), and am getting a 50% raise, in addition to wonderful benefits. I joked to my husband the other day that I'll finally be making as much as a comparably educated/experienced teacher, although that's not quite true, now that I actually look at the salary schedule.

    Anyway, I'm not actually sure what the answer is. Recently museums have moved increasingly to hiring directors with business/fundraising, as opposed to museum, backgrounds. My gut reaction is that this may have fueled some recent growth in top salaries.

    On the flip side, if entry-level salaries (and all the salaries in between) were increased, would the overall quality of the museum field improve such that a fairly compensated (at $100K) could do as much for a museum as someone making $600K? (Since staff all down the line would be better?)

    Does a director have to have a salary on par with top donors to be effective?