Museums are turning a blind eye to their ethical obligation to pay a living wage says Taryn Nie, Membership and Grants Manager at The Rockwell Museum in Corning (NY). [Photos: Ilana Novick]
An extract from our latest book, For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries.
WHY ARE MUSEUM STAFF SALARIES TRADITIONALLY LOW? It is not purely because the sector is strapped for cash, as is so often suggested. Low salaries, often not even representing a living wage, are in large part due to the fact that the field is dominated by women.
“You are far too young and far too female to have a curator ever report to you”. This overtly sexist statement was made to Kaywin Feldman, Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, during an interview for a position at a large art museum in Texas when she was 31 years old. She felt the need to reiterate this belittling sentiment, which she has encountered repeatedly throughout her 22-year museum career, at the American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM) 2016 Annual Meeting because implicit sexism and gender disparity still dominate the profession.
Museums, like all institutions and individuals, face the choice of compliance with, or resistance to, society’s wrongs. At face value, they seem to be doing the latter. Inclusivity, equality, and diversity have become buzzwords that define the future of museums. The terms are cropping up at conferences, on blogs, and in strategic plans internationally – but nearly always in reference to audience. All the talk of equality by change-makers and visionaries in the field rarely turns the lens inward to address one glaring inconsistency – the treatment of museum staff. In this area, equality – particularly of pay – is hard to find.
Women make up two-thirds of the art museum workforce, and not only are entry- and mid-level staff salaries lower than those of counterparts in other fields with the same educational background that do similar work (such as librarians or teachers), but in many museums a vast gender pay gap exists when it comes to remuneration at director levels. The relationship between museums and femininity is a fraught one, and the idea of gender bias within museums’ walls is not new. By now, the under-representation of female artists and feminine histories within museum collections and exhibitions is a widely accepted fact that most art museums are still struggling to amend. But before the Guerrilla Girls came together in 1985 to give voice to gender discrimination in the art world – from representation in museums, to opportunities, to funding – the issue was largely hush-hush. It is only recently that minor attention is starting to be given to how the societal biases and femmephobia that have shaped museum narratives throughout history have been playing out in the museum workforce for equally long.
Just as the Guerilla Girls gave a voice to female artists, it is important now that a voice be given to female art museum staff members who continue to face hiring biases and menial salaries. In order to do so, long-entrenched gender-biased practices in the field must be addressed and reevaluated. While liberal attitudes and socially progressive discourse envelop a museum’s exterior, such high ideals seem disingenuous when poor salaries reflect an internal patriarchal hierarchy. Unfortunately, museums have thus far turned a blind eye to their ethical obligation to pay a living wage. True change must come from within. Museums have the chance to become leaders in workplace pay equity. Yet, if historical trends continue, museums are poised to cement their status as a pink-collar profession with large armies of women in the underpaid lower rungs of the ladder, and a handful of (white) men in the highly-paid upper tiers.
Employees are a museum’s most valuable asset, and wage equity – at all levels – should be at the heart of museum discourse. However, even as comprehensive salary studies by AAM and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have become more regular, and a coalition of museum professionals has recently organized to thoroughly address the issue, it is still mired in myth, and an aversion to the topic at the highest – and most influential – levels persists.
This chapter seeks to unpack the intricate cycle of gender discrimination and pay inequity that plague the field, and calls for top-down solutions that will effect systemic change.
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