Museums and salaries

humanpyramid-1The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.

The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.

Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.

The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?

Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?

2 thoughts on “Museums and salaries

  1. Uma Parameswar, an MA graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, writes:

    The other day, a couple of recent Arts Business graduates from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore contemplated various career options available to them within Asia. The discussion culminated with the following impressions about the arts industry in Asia specific to public funded museums.

    Akin to the treatment given to non profit arts organizations in the West, most Asian publicly-funded museums offer paltry remuneration to employees from the lowest rank-and-file to the mid-management level. Despite the fact that developed countries in South East Asia have an active arts policy and appear to offer attractive remuneration for senior management teams, the lower level employees, who inevitably serve as the backbone for a well-organized and efficient museum, have yet to be incentivized enough to look at museum management as a career path and not a stop-gap arrangement.

    Other developing countries in Asia, such as India, have been unable to formulate and build a strategic arts policy (in spite of having a generous annual budget allocation) that focuses on attracting the best talent at a premium. They view museums and their middle management as a “non-priority sector.”

    Understandably, Asia consists predominantly of developing countries, as economies in the region develop, so will their ability to invest in other sectors like the arts. However, would the governments of these developing countries in Asia be able to take further pride in their national heritage by securing a talented low to mid management teams dedicated to the growth of museums?

    One also wonders whether it is possible for the press/media of these developing countries to create awareness about the situation of these public arts organizations, and their inability to attract the best talent.

  2. One should not forget that developing world corporate salaries also look paltry alongside US equivalents and so developing world Arts salaries don’t look quite as bad when compared with their local corporate equivalents.

    It is also worth remembering, when looking at US Arts salaries (which by all other global standards are generous) that the US Arts Institutions exist within an environment which is NOT hugely supported by the public sector. There is therefore a fundamental occupational requirement for the Directors of major US Arts institutions to be skilled in fund raising from both private sources and corporate sponsors. This important skill is the single biggest differentiating factor when comparing salaries of US Arts leaders with the pay packets of their European counterparts. The Americans are often, effectively, raising the money to pay their own salaries. That is why they are paid more.

    Having said that, recessions notwithstanding, the fundraising processes for major Arts institutions within the US are more established and less pioneering than they used to be and I would be judging performance of new museum directors not by funds raised but by new sources of funding converted for their institution. Anyone paid well these days needs to be accountable to appropriate, updated, performance parameters.

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