Opinion  November 11, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

How Much Museum Jobs Really Pay

Kai Pilger, Wikimedia Commons

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 12 April 2017

Have you ever wondered what a job in the art world pays? Thanks to a new pay transparency law that went into effect last week, all job postings in New York City must now disclose in good faith the minimum and maximum annual salary or hourly wage that an employer would pay for a position. As New York is the center of the art world, the change provides a unique opportunity to understand how art businesses and institutions value their employees.

I initially set out to investigate the city’s job boards for all types of art-world positions in commercial and institutional settings. The surprising conclusions on the job boards prompted me to reach out to museum workers via an anonymous survey. Here, you can learn more about what to expect to earn in a museum or art institution, with intel from professionals in the field.

Photo: Joe Piette, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Philadelphia Art Museum workers rally for a fair contract, Apr 1, 2022. Philadelphia, PA

Curators and Curatorial Assistants 

Perhaps you dream of becoming a museum curator in New York. Before you even begin your job search, in most instances, curatorial roles in major museums require a master's degree if not a Ph.D., along with years of experience. A master's program at a state or city university will run you about $30,000 in total for two years of schooling, while a private university will cost up to $60,000. Once you fulfill your educational requirements, curatorial positions can be competitive and standards are extremely high. 

Those who participated in our survey had a lot to say about this. One wrote in and said, "In school, I saw myself becoming a curator, though, at the time, I had no idea what challenges would come with that. The low salary is certainly one of them — and I’ve consistently taken on additional work (outside of my full time job) in order to keep working towards my goal."

As part of the new law, employers are permitted to post a fixed rate salary rather than a salary range. The roles we found with these fixed-rate salaries include two curatorial assistant positions from major museums. Although the job descriptions for both positions were the same, the pay varied. One offered $50,000 per annum while the other offered $63,989. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Emile Theodore (center), museum curator of the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille from 1912 to 1937, shown here during reconstruction of the gallery dedicated to Spanish and Italian paintings, c. 1920.

After a few years of assistantship, if the timing is right and a position opens up, one could advance to the assistant curator role - which differs from a curatorial assistant position. In this role, you must have a concentration and experience in the material required for the role. For example, an assistant curator of Egyptian art at an encyclopedic museum must be an Egyptologist with a demonstrated background in curating Egyptian art. If you have experience with this niche subject matter and specific specialization, you could make anywhere between $72,000 - $75,000. An associate curator, the next step up from assistant curator, makes around $80,000 - $85,000 annually.

As one responder to our survey responded, "Because curators have such a specific skill set that cannot be easily applied in other industries, there is a misguided belief that institutions can get away with paying them less. At the end of the day, it seems like leadership does not actually value the personhood of the people they employ."

All levels of curator roles are vital to museums. The individuals who hold these positions wield lots of power at their respective institutions. Involved in nearly all facets of a museum’s functions, curators protect, preserve, communicate, study, and advance art to the public. Yet these highly sought-after and highly regarded positions are known for having menial, low, and fixed-rate salaries.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

European paintings at Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC, USA)

Arts Administration

Art institutions rely so heavily on art administrators. These positions help organize exhibitions, manage staff, and look after buildings. Though administrators wear many hats and perform the duties of multiple roles, the pay is mostly entry-level. According to the anonymous survey that Art & Object conducted, this type of role is notorious for low salaries in a system that is ambiguous and opaque by design to keep the salaries at the top high and the bottom low. Many responders agree that they have thought of pivoting to other art-adjacent fields because they know they pay better. 

Researchers and Archivists

Along a similar line, to become a researcher or archivist one must have advanced education and prior experience. An archivist position at a museum is advertised at $70,000 - $73,000 and requires both an MLS (Masters of Library Sciences) and experience in a similar position. A senior registrar at another museum pays $68,000 - $72,000 and requires a minimum of five years of experience. In other fields, these are entry-level salaries, but in the art world, they are advertised as competitive, mid-level pay ranges. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A museum registrar examines artifacts to go on display in the Civil War exhibit at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Security 

Arguably the most public-facing position at a museum is security. Individuals who fill these roles are the museum employees who visitors will likely interact with the most, yet their salaries are staggeringly low. Security teams at the top museums in the city, who are responsible for protecting billions of dollars worth of art and might have to stand for hours during a shift, are paid minimum wage, at just $15 per hour. 

Conclusion

Many responders to our survey agree that they are disappointed in the disproportionately low salaries that they have come to expect in art museum jobs. And almost everyone who completed our survey noted that even with the new pay transparency law in effect, they do not believe that art museums will pay employees what they deserve. Only "reluctantly, and with avid push back and public shaming," wrote in one responder.

Those who dreamed of becoming a curator or research assistant had to rethink and rework these aspirations because it is impossible to get these roles now, as they pay too little. One responder to our survey said that they dreamed of becoming a curator or researcher but the salary deterred them: "I never made it there because it’s impossible to get these roles now because they’re all belonging to people who went to the right Ivy League school, or are too highly specific so nobody is qualified."

It is public knowledge that directors at major museums make millions of dollars – Glenn Lowry makes $2.2 million a year at MoMA and Max Hollein makes around $1.2 million at the Met. Perhaps institutions think their directors are worth that amount. And perhaps they are. But even if that is the case, with director salaries that high and with major museums generating millions in revenue, could museums not afford to pay their staff more?

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