How much are you willing to give up to work in a museum? How much did you give up to work in a museum?
I’m not talking about quality of life issues like relocating to a new city, having to explain over and over again, at parties, what a “registrar” is, or spending the day in a windowless cubicle tucked in next to collections storage. I’m talking about cold hard cash.
My head is filled with museum wage data because I’ve been proofing the text of the 2014 Museum Salary Survey (coming soon to the AAM Bookstore). Serendipitously, while taking a break from all those numbers, I read an article in the NYT also related to pay.
"Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?" explores the motivations that lead well-educated young people to flock to that city, despite the dearth of jobs. Synopsis: many people are evidently willing to sacrifice income for “vibe.” They choose to live on a barista’s wages, rather than find a higher-paying job that actually uses their degree, in order to enjoy “a politically open culture that supports gay rights and the legalization of marijuana — in addition to the right of way for unicyclists or the ability to marry in a 24/7 doughnut shop.”
What caught my eye was an attempt to quantify this seemingly irrational decision making. “David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois” notes the article, “has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city.”
I think we need to work out a similar measure quantifying how poor people are willing to be in order to work in a museum.
There are a lot of highly educated, seriously smart people working in museums: among the salary survey respondents 90% earned at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to 30.4% of the general population). In some positions, such as director, curator, educator, well over half of museum workers have a graduate degree, compared to 10.9% of the general populace. I suspect that lurking in the back of the psyche of many museum folks is the belief that, given our smarts and the time and money we put into higher education, we could have chosen a more lucrative profession. (I know my dad not-so-secretly hoped I would become a doctor. When I took my first museum job, which paid $12,500 per year, he was, shall we say, less than thrilled.)
This sacrifice measure is important because it has a pernicious influence on many aspects of our field. It depresses wages, since we have, in effect, an oversupply of highly qualified people willing to underbid each other in return for the non-financial benefits of museum work. I suspect that low wages, in turn, contributes to a lack of diversity in the field. And I fear that the psychology of sacrifice helps create a culture of entitlement in which people feel that what they bought with the money they left on the table—the wages they could have had as doctors or lawyers or business consultants—is autonomy. Not everybody, clearly, but enough people that I run into this attitude, voiced or implied, at every conference I attend, at many of the museums I work with.
Some are people who have spent years (or decades) becoming experts in their scholarly fields. They’ve put in their time, paid their dues, and matured into positions where they can do work they know to be excellent. So they may listen to colleagues enthusing about the need for participatory engagement, crowdsourced input and the curator as facilitator and feel, quite reasonably, that somebody moved their cheese. Some, whether or not they themselves are scholars, went into the field to help create the kind of museum experience they fell in love with—a traditional experience of scholarship and quiet contemplation—and are frustrated to find that not everyone loves (or is willing to support) that tradition.
In the US, where museums do not, by and large, receive a majority of their budget from the government, we are subject to the same market forces as any other business. Even within the constraints of our mission, we have to provide an experience people are willing to pay for, preferably because they actually enjoy that experience, or at least because they are willing to support it as an abstract good. And yet, over and over I have conversations with people who feel aggrieved that no one is willing to pay them for what they want to produce. And resentful that they aren’t paid a wage they feel reflects their real value to society.
Now I wonder if I’ve misunderstood these conversations, to some degree. I wonder whether it isn’t so much that the aggrieved party feels that people in general ought to support museums whether or not they actually enjoy going to museums. I wonder if the complainants feel, to some extent, that they themselves have paid the cost of supporting museums they love and want to work in—paid for it with the sacrifice of wages they might earned had they chosen another path.